Ryan Moore tried to focus on the movie. His phone wouldn’t let him. He was out to enjoy a nice evening with his wife, Amanda, but instead of relaxing in the multiplex getting invested in a story, he felt a buzzing text-message alert beckon from his pocket. He shrugged it off. At least his phone was set to vibrate. But then came another text, and another. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Soon he couldn’t help but wonder if something was up.
After the movie, he reluctantly checked his phone. A deluge of messages, from multiple friends out of town, set off more alarm bells. “Call me.”
Moore was about to make the kind of call everyone fears.
“Well, it’s Steve,” said a friend on the other end of line. “He’s dead.”
“No f---ing way. I saw him last week.”
It was devastating enough to learn his friend had died. But the blade cut deeper than that for Moore. Just a week earlier, he and ‘Steve,’ whose name has been changed at the request of family, met to commiserate. They shared the bond of a heartbreaking experience: serious concussions and, as a result, depression.
Moore, a Markham native who moved to Sudbury eight years ago, had endured some major head blows during his time playing lacrosse, including getting knocked out cold, but a car accident was what really changed his life. Five years ago, driving to pick up something Amanda forgot at work, Moore got rear-ended by an unknown driver. He stumbled out of the car, dazed, and couldn’t make out the voices around him. As he recalls, they sounded like the teachers in a Peanuts cartoon, making the whom-whom-whom sound. The accident caused whiplash, brain trauma and years worth of vicious back problems that compromised his ability to do his job working at a group home. He battled through a cycle of pain killers, from Percocet to opioids, depression and even suicidal thoughts.
His buddy Steve had endured something similar after a concussion playing hockey. The two acted as each other’s lifelines, chatting about their symptoms over a beer or two. “Do you get the blurred vision?" One would ask. "Me too," the other would answer.
Since concussion symptoms are so mysterious and difficult to articulate, sufferers can feel alone, like no one believes them, unless they vent to someone who has experienced the same thing. Moore relied on Steve for those talks until, one day, he never could again. That night two years ago when Moore was at the movies, Steve took his own life. He couldn’t deal with the after effects of his brain injuries anymore. Life was too crushingly daunting. He was gone.
When Moore, 30, talks about Steve today, it’s extremely difficult for him. His voice breaks, not just with the pain of missing a friend, but with a certain sense of survivor’s guilt.
“It could’ve been me,” Moore said. “It wasn’t long before that I almost did the same god-damn thing. I remember I was at the visitation, and something inside me snapped.”
Moore felt he could’ve done something. If only he’d started working on his invention sooner, he thought. He’d concocted a new way to prevent and track brain injuries, but he’d been sitting on it. No more. Steve’s death could not be in vain.
“I’ve got to do something about this.”
Ryan had to tell someone about his idea. The best sounding board was his father, Tim, who had an MBA and the type of business mind that could help turn something theoretical into something pitchable. Ryan sketched a prototype on a napkin. Originally, the design was a fresh approach to a hockey helmet. The plan came to Ryan one day when, while driving, he saw a cyclist narrowly escape a crash.
“I kept playing with the idea of what would happen if the wipeout happened,” Moore said. “The thing that stuck with me is: bicycle helmets are made out of Styrofoam traditionally, because, when your head hits the pavement, the Styrofoam breaks apart. It does that to disperse the energy. I kept thinking, ‘How do we get that into a hockey helmet?’ ”
Moore and his father toyed with the idea of a helmet built with technology similar to that of a bike helmet but, with impacts so much more frequent for a hockey player than a cyclist, the helmet would be rendered useless too quickly after repeated impacts. So the Moores eventually settled on the idea of something an athlete could wear independently. They reached out to retired NHL goalie and concussion survivor Mike Palmateer, who joined their project as an advisor.
“You’ve got to believe in something if you want to it to succeed in my books, and I just loved the idea and the concept and the fact that we may be able to help a lot of people, people just like Ryan who got hit,” Palmateer said. “That story was an incredible story for him, and thousands of people have gone through that. So if we can make a difference, we want to.”
Palmateer suggested applying's Moore’s concept to a skull cap that can fit under any helmet. Palmateer would love to see it become a standard piece of equipment in every league, for every team, as common and essential as a neck guard or jockstrap.
"We’ve got a decent prototype now, and when the real one gets done it will be even slimmer, form fitted and more comfortable,” Palmateer said. “You put your helmet on, slide it under your helmet. It’s like when guys were wearing the mask. First of all, nobody could even think of putting a hockey mask on, or a visor. But as they grow up with the visor, it just becomes second nature, right?”
Instead of Styrofoam, the device is outfitted with an array of 22 gel pods, covering the entire head, with similar texture to that of Tide laundry detergent pods. The name: the BrainBag.
“We found some equations about the safe limit for acquired brain injuries, and basically these pouches fail at that point,” Moore said. “And once the plastic fails, they’re no longer a pouch. They’re like an airbag when you have a car accident and you hit the airbag. In the movies, they always show the airbag as this big balloon thing that stays full of air, and you’ll see people trying to get out around them, but an airbag is open is on the side. When you hit the front of it, the air squeezes out the sides, and the force that’s squeezing out of the airbag is force that’s not on your chest meeting the steering wheel. That’s how they slow you down, and it’s the same rule of physics for the BrainBag pouch."
The pouches are rigged to withstand 20 pounds of force, after which they’re rigged to tear and displace energy. Moore cites Sidney Crosby’s serious concussion from a Dave Steckel hit in 2011 as an example of a brain injury that could’ve been prevented or at least reduced in severity by a BrainBag. Crosby’s neck was turned and exposed before impact, meaning his skull took every ounce of force from the blow. A BrainBag under his helmet would’ve absorbed and dispersed some of the energy from the hit, reducing the force jarring the brain. It's an ideal invention for hockey but has many other applications. Football players, sparring boxers or construction workers, for instance, would all benefit from wearing the cap under their headgear.
Moore isn’t just interested in preventing injuries, either. The BrainBag also offers potential to help medical professionals treat and understand injuries after they happen. His brother Brendan, an electrical engineer and app developer, wrote an app to accompany the BrainBag, which is equipped with an accelerometer for data mining. After a head impact, the app receives digital information corresponding to which pouch burst and at which degree of force. A user can then build a personal profile tracking any head injuries and specifically what part of the skull received them.
“If you get knocked out cold and carted off to the hospital, they’re going to say, ‘We’ve got a 30-year-old male who’s unconscious from a head injury.’ That’s the extent of the information they have,” Moore said. “But if you’ve got a BrainBag on, and you’ve got a history of head injuries, and you show up unconscious at the hospital, they scan your BrainBag, and they go, ‘Oh s---, this guy’s had four different head impacts, and this is the impact location, and this is the third time he’s been hit in that same spot.' We’ll have the treatment and diagnostic history of the patient there. We’re thinking we’ll be able to improve treatment and recovery for the individual.”
The idea, in theory, is a winner. But there are a dozens of concussion-solution inventions out there, most of which appear revolutionary on paper, so the Moores have a lot of work left to do before the BrainBag goes mainstream. The first step, of course, was the patent. They’ve achieved that. It’s pending in Canada and the United States. The BrainBag also needs a pilot project, ideally with a hockey school or a minor team. That’s typically the way these inventions are tested, as wearing them under an existing helmet doesn’t compromise anyone’s safety, so there’s nothing to lose and a lot to gain. The Moores also aren’t operating with much capital, instead building the BrainBags manually in their kitchen. The best-case scenario would be to strike a partnership with a major sponsor. Think Nike, Reebok CCM or Under Armour. The Moores hope to have pitch meetings by early fall.
It’s possible, then, that the BrainBag gets swallowed up by a corporation and rebranded. Moore doesn’t care if that happens, though, and he doesn’t come across as an inventor out for a big payday, either. When he fights the fight to get the BrainBag off the ground, it’s clear he’s thinking about that regretful day at Steve’s visitation and hoping to prevent others from meeting the same tragic fate.
“I don’t care what they call it as long as people are wearing it and it’s saving people’s lives,” Moore said. “I’ve seen one too many guys laying completely motionless on the ice. It would be nice to not have to see that again.”
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