My name is Madeline Uretsky, and I am a junior at Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody, MA. What used to be known as “getting your bell rung”, and being told to just “shake it off”, are no longer accepted ways of dealing with concussions. Thanks to modern research, we know now that concussions are in fact, brain injuries, and must be dealt with as such. They are to be taken seriously, regardless of the severity, because the short term and long term effects can be devastating. Ignoring the symptoms and the mistreatment of them can have lasting effects to the brain, as we have learned from the many NFL players now suffering from the many concussions they sustained, but ignored, while playing. Any subsequent hit to the head before the prior concussion has healed can have profound effects on the brain as I have learned. I am just one of the many thousands of people who have suffered a severe concussion, and whose life has been forever changed by it. You never think it’s going to happen to you.
On October 11, 2011, while playing in my soccer game, I was tripped from behind while sprinting for the ball, fell on my forehead, snapped my neck back, and fell and hit my forehead again in the same place in a matter of seconds. I knew something was wrong immediately, but I had no idea how serious it would be. My symptoms did not become apparent until about 48 hours later. I could not sit up, tolerate any light at all, I was tired, and had an excruciating headache. It has now been a year and seven months since the moment of impact.
I spent the first 3 months of my concussion lying in bed at home, in a dark room, and on complete brain rest. This brain rest meant that I could not watch TV, use a computer, phone, draw, text, read anything, or do any sort of homework or exercise. In other words, I could just sleep, lie in bed, and not go to school.
At this time, my symptoms were numerous and very high on the symptoms scale at the doctor. I had severe headaches as well as up to 165 very sharp pains all over my head every day. I also had severe whiplash, disorientation, memory loss, extreme fatigue, dizziness, balance problems, trouble following a conversation, ringing in my ears, and I could not tolerate any bright colors, light, or noise of any kind. My sleep at night was erratic and filled with nightmares. You would never know this by just looking at someone with a concussion because they do not have a cast like a broken bone. The brain is still injured but on the outside you look fine.
I went to my pediatrician weekly, and my neurosurgeon monthly, for a symptom evaluation. On a scale of 0-6, I had all 5’s and 6’s during those three months of brain rest; I could not believe how awful I felt. I started going weekly to a massage therapist who practices a type of acupressure that helps brain injured patients. I liked going because it was a way to relax myself, even though it was painful. I continue to go on an as needed basis, and also do many other kinds of alternative therapies that have been helpful such as chiropractic, herbs, speech therapy, balance therapy, eye coordination exercises, and others.
As these weeks turned into months, it became apparent that there was no end in sight for me. I was isolated from my friends and my school, yet I felt so awful that I accepted that there was just nothing I could do about it, except rest, and wait it out. I had visitors, on a limited basis, but I did not even feel well enough to enjoy myself. I was unable to engage in any kind of conversation, and I would randomly fall asleep. There were times that I could not even remember that I had visitors.
I missed all but five weeks of my sophomore year and I am still not cleared for physical activity other than walking. I did catch up with my schoolwork over the summer of 2012, and now I am on a full schedule at school but with accommodations such as extended time on tests. I took my SAT test without accommodations and that was a challenge. I did some extra preparations to help myself concentrate and have the energy to last the entire test. Overall, it went well and I always wonder how I would have felt during the test if I had not had a concussion. Recently, I also had a setback that kept me out of school for a week after a re-injury to my neck from a visit to the physical therapist. What makes my concussion so severe is that I still have all of my symptoms over a year and a half later, just to a lesser degree. In addition, I have learning disabilities now that I had never had before. Focusing, processing new information, multi-tasking, and comprehending orally are some of them. I am doing much better than I was, but I still have a ways to go. I am hoping to one-day wake up symptom-free.
When you sustain a serious brain injury, your life, and the lives of those around you, are greatly impacted. What you once knew as “normal” no longer exists, things that you could count on for yourself no longer exist, and what you have to do to achieve, and accept, a “new normal”, is a difficult process, both emotionally and physically. I could no longer do any form of physical activity at all, yet I was accustomed to playing sports every day of my life. Before my concussion, I was a very involved and active student – my freshman year, I played soccer, hockey, and winter and spring track.
I decided early on in my recovery that I was going to do whatever the doctors told me, and I was definitely NOT going to let this concussion get the best of me. It’s not who I was before my injury, so I wasn’t going to allow myself to become that person. I was open to any kind of treatment that could help me. As I started to feel a bit better, I began taking baby steps to regain my life. I started to use my computer to reach out to others, as well as to learn more about my brain injury.
Along the way, I decided that there must be other teenagers out there suffering as I was, and who perhaps don’t have the kind of support that I have, so that became my mission – to help them. Life as a teenager is difficult enough, so just imagine being a teenager with up to 165 headaches per day, living in a constant state of fogginess, having memory loss, unable to carry on a conversation without physical pain, sensitivity to light and noise, and generally not being able to live the life I once had.
Speaking at the Boston Acquired Brain Injury Support Group Walk in Jamaica Plain, October 2012
Returning to school as a student with a brain injury is a very scary proposition. Will people look at me funny? Will they ask me a lot of questions? Will they think I’m faking? – after all, I look fine. These were the many questions that I had before I returned.
My school was so supportive with my accommodations that I decided to write a chapter for a book about concussions in sports, and I have been a regular blogger about various brain injury topics, for several websites. I was the speaker at the 10th annual Brain Injury Walk in Boston in October, and the Pediatric Brain Injury Conference in November. I was featured in Bay State Parenting magazine, the Salem Evening News, and the Boston Globe as well. I will continue my crusade for concussion awareness, because I feel that this has happened to me for a reason, and that is my mission to help others.
As long and difficult as my road to recovery has been, it has also been extremely rewarding. I have been able to mentor, counsel and befriend many other kids with concussions, and this has made me feel so much better. The most important advice I can give is to stay positive because things improve over time. Brain injuries are a work in progress, there may not be a change on a daily basis, but improvement will be seen. Just because life is different than it used to be, it doesn’t mean it isn’t as great – you just have to find a way to make it as great, even if you have to do it differently.