Monthly Archives: May 2013

“Healing Heads”- Massachusetts HS Junior on Her Concussion Journey

{ Editor’s Note: At the ripe old age of 17, Madeline Uretsky has become a prominent voice in concussion education. She was the subject of a Boston Globe feature story on concussion in January of 2013. Her story has also been highlighted by the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, The Salem (MA) News, and a number of concussion-centric websites and blogs. She has spoken publicly on concussion, most recently at the Boston Acquired Brain Injury Support (BABIS) Walk. Madeline is truly a concussion education warrior after our own hearts, and she is an important voice. – Jay}

“Healing Heads”

mad1My 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

WA HS Sophomore Lacrosse Player Reflects on the Physical and Emotional Damage of Post Concussion Syndrome

By Kait Dawson

kaitIf you were to look at me, you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. On the outside, I look like a normal, happy, healthy, teenage girl. But there is so much more going on inside my head than it seems. I am a completely different person than I was before. I have pounding headaches everyday, and I’m not able to remember something I was told five minutes ago, or a movie I’ve seen a dozen times. I have emotional outbursts. I’m constantly both mentally and physically exhausted. I’m losing friends who don’t understand why I am the way I am, and I sometimes feel hopeless and depressed. I struggle with insomnia and being so behind in school that I have to repeat classes. It is a seemingly never-ending bad dream that I can’t wake up from. I never thought much of the word “concussed” before it was relevant to me. But, that word is now my life.

I am now a completely different person than I was before my accident. I was a 4.0 student. I challenged myself daily and took school very seriously. I was a year ahead most students in math, science, and Spanish. I also played lacrosse five nights a week. Lacrosse was a huge part of my life. Pretty much all my friends were on the team. I also play basketball and tennis, but lacrosse was the love of my life. This contrasts greatly to how I am now, taking minimal classes and not even being allowed near a lacrosse ball.

The one thing I do remember very clearly is that day. It was a warm, sunny day in April, the 11th to be exact, and I was wearing my favorite shirt. In PE that day we were playing basketball and I was on a team with three of my closest friends. We won all of our games, so we made it to the championship, which happened to be against an all boys team. It was a rough, violent game that included a lot of fouling. There were two minutes left and we were tied. The only thing on my mind was winning. If I had known that this one game would impact the rest of my life, I might have been less competitive. A boy on the other team dropped the ball at the top of the key and I saw my opportunity to score. I quickly lunged forward. Little did I know, a boy on the other team also decided to lunge for the ball too. Our heads hit with an audible thud and I wobbled backwards in a daze. The gym spun around me, and my ears rang loudly. My head felt like it was going to explode from throbbing pain. I quickly snapped out of it and picked up the ball and scored a basket. We won that game, but my life had taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

When I got home, I told my mom about what happened and that my head was hurting. She checked to make sure my pupils were dilated evenly and made sure I wasn’t feeling nauseous. That was all she knew about concussions. We both thought nothing of what was happening. I bombed a biology test the next day. Biology was my best and favorite subject and I couldn’t understand why I did so poorly. I still didn’t realize what was going on. That night, I played a lacrosse game. I was disoriented the whole game and kept losing track of who had the ball. At this point, my head was still pounding. I was also super sensitive to light and noise. I will regret going to school the next day for the rest of my life.

I was planning on staying home because of my headache, but it was the Friday before spring break and I had two tests that day, one in English and one in Geometry. That day in PE, we were playing ultimate Frisbee. Being my usual competitive self, I was playing too roughly. I don’t remember anything about playing except for the moment I got hit. It was like one of those slow motion moments in a movie. I saw an opportunity and jumped in front of a girl on the other team that was about to catch a pass from a teammate. I swatted the Frisbee away from her and heard it hit the ground. This girl was obviously surprised about what happened and wasn’t expecting it at all. She flailed her arms and her left elbow made contact with my right temple. It was the same spot that the boy’s head hit in basketball a few days prior. I immediately collapsed on the field. I wasn’t unconscious, but I was really out of it. I got up slowly and tried to process what had happened. The PE teacher asked about what happened and I explained. After hearing that I was hit a few days ago, she tugged me off the field. I was sent straight to the nurse’s office and then straight to the doctor’s office from there. I was told that I had suffered a concussion.

My first thought was, “when can I play lacrosse again?” My pediatrician told me I would be completely better by next week. I canceled my travel plans for spring break and spent the whole week in bed in a dark room. I don’t remember that week at all except that I slept a lot. When it was the next week and I didn’t feel better, I was discouraged. But, my doctor assured me that it would only be two more weeks. She said that sometimes it takes a little longer. After each benchmark passed and I had no improvement, I began to lose hope. It was now the summer break and I wasn’t better at all. I spent the whole summer in bed. I left my house maybe five times at most and saw my friends only once. It was a really dark time for me. I was so confused. Why wasn’t my head getting any better?

Not much changed for the next few months. I had full testing done by a neuropsychologist and they couldn’t find anything wrong with me. It became very clear that full time school wasn’t an option so I dropped several classes and got a 504 plan. I hated the idea of this. I felt weak, like I couldn’t handle it. I wanted nothing more than to go back in time and stop myself from getting hurt. I had missed out on playing in the state championships with my lacrosse team, going to the Young Life camp that my friends and I had been talking about since 6th grade and everything else that mattered to me. I was still in a very dark place.

From then on, things didn’t get much better. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could go back to that day and change things. But, I can’t. I’m stuck with debilitating headaches, anxiety attacks, and just coping in general. I’m stuck with being this whole new person that I don’t recognize. I’m stuck with Post Concussive Syndrome for the time being and there’s nothing I can do about it. The only thing left to do is to be positive and pray that my brain will heal soon. I’ve had to miss out on so many opportunities over the last year because of it and I’ve struggled with periods of depression. But recently, I have come to accept it. I’ve learned that there’s no point in getting upset about something I can’t change. I could have PCS for another month, or another year. There’s no way to know. But the thing I have learned is to just “let it be”. I’ve finally come to terms with it. I no longer get stressed about small things like I used to. It’s not the road I chose, but it’s the one I’ve been dealt.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to play lacrosse again. I pray every night that my concussion will go away so that things can get back to normal and I can play the game I love so much. The one thing I do know for sure is that, when I do return to the lacrosse field, I will be wearing a helmet. I will be the only one on the field sporting such lovely headgear, but I don’t care. I will wear it proudly because I know that I am protecting my head.