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The Frightening Truth About Concussions

Posted by johnnieraz on March 11, 2019 at 1:15 PM

     By John Rezell

     Well into our fourth month of painstaking concussion recovery, I sat with my teenage daughter in our doctor's office attempting to figure out a reasonable plan forward that didn't continue the seemingly ineffective, barbaric, somewhat medieval course of action we had been following. Then our doctor finally confessed:

     "The thing is," he said after avoiding the truth for so long, "is that we really don't much about the brain and head trauma. So we just have to try some things that we've tried before and hope they work."

     Having talked to a number of parents of kids who had suffered concussions, I asked our doctor about the trend I uncovered.

     "It seems to me," I said, "That if you haven't recovered in two weeks you're looking at two years."

     "Yes," he said, "That seems to be what I see."

     That, more than anything, is the scary truth about concussions that no one talks about. As the cycling community mourns the death of Olympian Kelly Caitlin by suicide and learns she was fighting through concussion recovery, here are a few things you should know based on our personal experience.

        No Quick Fix

        In my daughter's case it took more than two years to regain a close, but not complete, recovery to the person she was before she got hit in the head with a volleyball.

     We see so often athletes on TV sustain a major blow to the head, shake it off, and get right back into battle. And we think that's fine. Lately trainers spend time evaluating the severity of the blow. But let me tell you how my daughter's concussion went down.

     It was a Saturday volleyball tournament. When your team isn't playing, you must help officiate another match. She sat at the scorer's table preparing paperwork while the two teams warmed up. A ball came out of nowhere and smacked her in the side of the head, just behind the temple.

     Since she was officiating, not playing, I didn't see it happen. She worked the match, then came up to me in the stands, shrugged and told me she just got hit in the head.

     I immediately went through the laundry list:

       Did you lose consciousness? No.

       Does your head hurt? No.

       Are you dizzy? No.

       Do you feel nauseous? No.

       Feel sleepy? No.

       Do you know what day it is? Yeah, it's Saturday.

       Do you know your name? Yeah, (laughing) Taylor Rezell.

     Everything seemed fine. She went out and played another couple of matches. We went home. No worries. Sunday was fine. Monday morning she woke up to go to school and came to me and said, "Dad, something's wrong ..."

     She felt terrible, a headache and nauseousness after a restless night of little sleep. She had balance issues. Light bothered her eyes. She couldn't do her homework. Didn't want to eat. She felt confused.

     We went to the doctor and he prescribed some pain medication for the headaches, basically saying that's about all he can control at this point. Never one for drugs, she declined after the first dose because it made her feel out of control. To her that was more scary than the pain.

     She needed to follow this basic protocol — this for a 16-year-old honors student just beginning her junior year of high school: No phone, computer, TV or music. No reading or writing. Sleep in a darkened room until you feel better. Then see what you can do, and do it until you don't feel good again. Repeat. Repeat again. And again, and again ...

     It started with 6 to 8 hours of sleep followed by less than 10 minutes of activity before her symptoms would overwhelm her, sending back to isolation.

       After a month or so, she could manage 10-15 minutes.

       After three months almost 20 minutes, and finally progressed to a point where she started physical therapy to basically reteach her brain many of the millions of things it does unconsciously every second — things like figuring out where the body is in space so she wouldn't just lose balance and fall out of the blue. Yep, things like that.

      She couldn't go to school because, aside from not being able to concentrate and read for more than a few minutes, the brain suffered from information overload. All the people walking past in the halls, conversations everywhere — her brain couldn't filter it.

        Of course, if doctors don't understand what's happening or what's next, you can imagine what average people — like teachers, coaches, teenage friends, teammates, etc. — are thinking, much less the patient herself.

     Luckily her school has a strong training program, and the school trainer proved to be one of the most important people in her recovery, protecting Taylor like a mother bear protects her cub.

        Luckily I had a job where I could be around her most of the day, celebrating milestones like being able to read one page of US History without having to take a break, and actually being able to understand what she read. And I could comfort through the tough times, when a short drive in the car would make her head throb or she would stare at a Chemistry problem for 5 minutes and not understand a thing about it.

       It was a very long, confusing, frustrating, scary recovery with plenty of small steps forward and leaps backward. Two years later she continued to battle symptoms while trying to adjust to college life. But she has progressed, and is much, much better, although still not back to complete normalcy.

       We watch sports now and cringe each time a head gets hit. We scream at the TV if no one stops play to check the athlete out. We feel the pain when an athlete gets back into a game quickly. As someone who covered bike racing for years, I simply lose it when a rider crashes and is quickly helped back onto a bike.

       We are forever thankful that four years later she's thriving as a college junior, that we somehow managed to pull through her high school years without an extra year thanks to her determined pace before the concussion, and thankful that most of her teachers took it in stride and helped her (although there's always one that's challenging the diagnosis and hinting that she was out to cut corners).

        Interestingly enough, our doctor told us it appears that high academic achievers seem to have the most difficult and long recoveries. Professionals don't know why. But I'll always remember a school meeting with all interested parties involved, when Taylor wanted desperately to jump back into her honor classes and push through knowing that before that errant volleyball hit her it would have been no problem at all to succeed, if not thrive.

       That's when her trainer spoke up and said, "We all know that the Taylor we knew in September is not the same Taylor who is sitting at this table in April. And our only goal is to get that old Taylor back."

       Taylor looked at her trainer and understood, somehow, that she had to surrender who she thought she was and accept who she really was. She found a way to understand that it's all right to back off at times and take it easy. That's not easy for anyone, much less a teenager.

       It can shake your world to its core to learn there's so much about our brains and brain trauma that the experts don't know. The experts search for answers by literal trial and error. Taylor and I just know what we know. And we wanted to share that.

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