Eugene Bareman has seen firsthand how devastating an undetected brain injury can be.
In 2012, the City Kickboxing head coach almost turned his back on mixed martial arts after one of his fighters, Willman Rodriguez-Gomez, collapsed 32 seconds into a fight in Tahiti and was pronounced dead an hour later in hospital. It was reported the young boxer died of a ruptured artery in his brain.
"I've had a couple of fighters pass away because they were already predisposed, they already had something in their brain that wasn't obviously there, like it wasn't detectable just by looking at them," Bareman says.
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"It is not a very common occurrence in the sport but it does happen and this kind of thing hits close to home for us at this gym anyway."
Knowing the dangers of brain injuries, the New Zealand combat sports scene has been quick to embrace a new device, the Infrascanner, which can help prevent such tragedies.
Developed by the American military in a joint venture with doctors from the University of Pennsylvania and Baylor College of Medicine, the near-Infrared (NIR) technology enables clinicians to effectively and accurately detect intracranial bleeding in patients with head trauma.
The handheld, portable scanner was developed for early detection of brain bleeds, allowing for faster reactions to treating such injuries. Developed over 10 years, the device is now being used around the world by military, professional sporting teams, universities and emergency services.
"In this gym we've been quite close to some brain trauma, so I'm very happy the technology is here in New Zealand," Bareman says.
"Like a lot of stuff to do with trauma to the body, there's a golden time where you can pick it up. As it gets further and further away, it becomes more dangerous. Immediately after a fight is the best time to get scanned and pick up any potential injury and take care of it as fast as you can. With brain trauma, obviously the longer you leave it the more chance you might be in some trouble.
"It's part and parcel with the sport, but you can't accept it. You take as many preventative measures, teach your fighters how to defend properly, take whatever you can medically. As these pieces of technology become available and affordable, we just have to use them. We have to make it affordable. We need people to help us make it affordable. If it can save lives, then we need people who have it at their disposal to make these things cheap and subsidies them, we need them to help us as much as they can.
Late in 2019, the technology was in use at the King in the Ring: Kings vs Legends kickboxing event and was last week made as a mandatory tool for all Pro-Box New Zealand boxing events, with all fighters to be screened prior to stepping into the ring.
But it's not just combat sports that can benefit from its services. More and more sports are beginning to become more vocal about concussion and brain injuries, with a number of NFL teams already implementing the technology.
The growing recognition of sports-related brain trauma creates an ideal application for Infrascanner. In contact sports like football, rugby, soccer, boxing and others, Infrascanner can provide sideline diagnostics and help aid in the decision to evacuate injured athletes to a trauma center.
Kiwi UFC star Dan Hooker, who trains under Bareman at City Kickboxing, also coaches a stable of fighters at his own gym the Combat Academy. One of those fighters, Jayleigh Shaw, fought on the Kings vs Legends card, and Hooker says having the Infrascanner readily available provided a sense of comfort as a coach knowing his athlete would be looked after as best as possible.
"It's something that we in the combat sports arena have known about for a very long time," Hooker says. "Everyone knows that getting punched in the head is not good for your health, so you're trying to minimise that risk as much as possible in a fight and in the gym, but it's something that we've been mitigating the risks of for a very long time. It's only new to other sports now, where they're taking big knocks and CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and concussion wasn't as spoken about or realised as much.
"Everyone's different. Everyone's going to respond differently. Every concussion is a completely different kind of injury. You can do pre-testing, like memory testing and other tests you can do before, and then measure them after a fight just to make sure you're back to 100 per cent. Or there are tests you just do after. Immediately you get checked by a doctor or one of the medics at one of the fights, but things can take weeks or even a month to set in."
Hooker had his own issues with concussion in late 2018, and spent months on the sidelines recovering. He says during that time he came to learn that having someone with the knowledge to make sure you're getting fully tested was an important step in overcoming the injury.
"ACC can put you on to a concussion specialist and they'll come over and do the testing themselves. The government in New Zealand will take care of you, you just have to be honest about it, go to them and look for the help."