By Kate Gaglias
The saying “You will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory” is absolutely true. Many of us athletes take our sports for granted- The grueling practices, running laps for no reason, constant games and tournaments. But the truth is no matter how much we say we hate it we will always have the love for the sport. Until, unfortunately for some of us all of that can be taken away in an instant.
My name is Kate Gaglias, and I am a junior in High school in Long Island, New York. I’ve played soccer since I was four years old, beginning in an in-house league like every other toddler. I joined a travel team when I was eight called the Longwood Twisters (which I am still a part of today) and played on the junior high team, JV team, and in my sophomore year I became a member of our varsity team. But since a young age my life has been changed by concussions. I received my first concussion in 2007 by getting a ball slammed to the side of my head by one of my teammates at an indoor practice. I didn’t feel anything until I got home, and after telling my dad (an athletic trainer) and my mom (a physical therapist assistant), they checked out my symptoms (the normal dizziness, sensitivity to light, headaches) and they all added up to having a mild concussion. I was out of school for a week, and when my symptoms were gone I returned to school like a normal 5th grader.
My second concussion was in 2009, during a travel team game. I was defending a player on the opposing team, and when I received the ball I was pushed/tripped and fell backward onto the ground, hitting my head like a whiplash type injury. I did not lose consciousness; however I was immediately taken off the field due to symptoms of a headache and dizziness, and brought to the hospital where I would get my first CT scan. It was diagnosed as a mild concussion, so like the first time I stayed home from school for 3-4 days until all of my symptoms went away. Once again I was perfectly fine and continued with everyday life.
I received my third concussion when I was a freshman in high school in November of 2011. Again it was during a game with my travel team. I was defending a player by the net, and when she went to shoot I ran towards the ball, which then was shot straight into my head only two feet away. I fell immediately backward and again was taken off the field. I did not lose consciousness, but my symptoms were severe right away. I went to see Dr. Haley Queller at St. Charles Hospital Concussion Management, where I was diagnosed with another mild concussion. I stayed home from school again for about a week until my symptoms went away. Because I was a high school student, I had to complete a concussion protocol (5 stages of different levels of physical activity) so that I could be cleared to return to sports. My parents were concerned about me returning to soccer because it was my third concussion, but since I had a quick recovery it was ok for me to play again. I could’ve started playing again in December, but I waited till January just to be sure. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to play, but then again in the back of my mind I thought “Of course I’ll be able to play again, they can’t say no!” Little did I know that I would not always have that luck on my side.
October 5th, 2012 will always be a date I’ll never forget. That was the day I got my 4th concussion- a day that will forever change the meaning of the word “normal” for me. I can honestly say that I have no idea what my life was like before that day, because of the effects this concussion had on me physically, emotionally, and mentally. It was one of the few varsity games I actually got playing time- my luck right? The goalie on the other team punted the ball, and it bounced a few yards in front of me. After the bounce, I leaned in to head it since that was my first instinct on how to trap the ball. What I didn’t realize was a girl full-on sprinting towards me and the ball so that she could win it first. But instead of stopping, she continued sprinting right into my face before I got the chance to head the ball. I was immediately knocked backwards (which is the part I don’t remember), smacked my head on the turf and again received severe whiplash. People on the sidelines would later tell me that the impact was if I was “hit by a train”. The ref did not blow his whistle and the next thing I remember is getting off the ground and playing for the rest of the half- which was not the right thing to do, however I did not realize how hard I was actually hit. During halftime was when I started experiencing symptoms, including sensitivity to light/noise, extreme headaches, confusion, and not totally being aware of what happened. At first I was worried about my mouth… because of where she hit me; I now have issues with my TMJ. I cannot open my mouth fully without deviating it to the side first, and I cannot talk, chew, or even brush my teeth without a painful crack every time I try to open it.
I went home determined not to tell my parents that I had been hit yet again. This was for a few reasons: 1) like all parents do, I was afraid they would automatically freak out. 2) I was scared that I was just paranoid and overreacting. And 3) I did not want to start the process of doctor’s visits, physical therapy, and no contact from the outside world all over again. But they did find out, and after visiting the high school’s athletic trainer the next day they had to explain to me that I had yet again received another concussion, this one even worse than the other ones. I was upset, but thought “Hey at least in a few weeks I’ll be better again!”
I returned to school a week later, but instead of staying for the whole day I only stayed for half days for about 2 weeks. I was on something similar to a 504 plan, where I was exempt from homework or tests, and basically in school I would just keep my head down and try to block out as much noise as possible. Most people in my classes knew of my history with concussions, so of course when I returned to school I was greeted with the usual “Oh look Kate got another concussion” as if it was a joke. I went along with it, since it didn’t bother me that much because I mean they were right, I was “that girl” who was always hurt. After a while it wasn’t funny anymore, but I also knew that they were uneducated and had no idea of what I was going through so it wasn’t worth it for me to get upset over. A concussion is not a visible injury; just because I don’t have a cast around my head doesn’t mean I’m perfectly okay.
No one would have ever guessed that my recovery would take four times as long than it had ever taken for the past three concussions. I was cleared to do the return to play protocol, but this time I had to take it twice as slow to make sure I didn’t experience symptoms. There are five stages, and after about a month I was still not able to complete stage 2, because every time I would go on the elliptical I would automatically get dizziness, headaches, and not be aware of my surroundings. I went back to my doctor and took a few weeks off so that I could go to physical therapy. There, my main focus was vestibular therapy since one of my symptoms was that I could not walk and turn my head to the left at the same time, or else I would fall or get dizzy. After about two weeks I was able to walk normally without getting symptoms, and in January I restarted the protocol again and was able to finish it. In total, something that should’ve taken me two weeks took me almost 4 months to finish.
January 29th 2013 turned out to be the worst day of my life- The day I heard the words “You can never play soccer or any contact sport again”. In my doctor’s opinion, I had a higher risk of sustaining another concussion, which could be even worse and long term. If I returned, it would be against medical advice which was a risk my parents were not willing to take. To some people, they might just shrug it off because in their opinion there are other things more important than sports. But for me I was shocked and devastated. Until that moment I had never realized how serious my injury was. I would have never guessed that my doctor would say those words, being that in the beginning she had faith that I probably would be able to return to sports again. But then again, I knew that eventually I would realize this was the right decision. I became depressed; I didn’t want to leave my room, I would just sit and cry for hours. I missed school a lot because I had no motivation to get out of bed. I wouldn’t talk to my family or friends, because no matter how much they tried to sympathize they would never be able to understand what I was going through unless it happened to them. I had this mentality that “I had it the worst” because in my opinion I couldn’t get any lower.
Throughout this experience many people didn’t know how to act around me. A lot of my friends would constantly ask me if I was ok or why I was upset. Even some of my friends who played soccer with me didn’t realize how hard this decision was affecting me. During that time, the only people who could somewhat understand what I was going through was my parents and twin sister.
My whole life has revolved around sports, so missing my first spring and summer season of soccer was very hard on me emotionally. I would automatically get upset when someone would talk about a practice or tournament I could’ve played in if I hadn’t gotten hurt. I became bitter towards people who said they “hated” playing soccer or any other sport, because they would never realize how lucky they are that they are still able to play. Telling my coaches and team that had become my second family for 8 years that I could not play anymore was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
To get my mind off of things I joined spring track so that I could somehow still be involved (my only options for non-contact sports are track, golf, bowling, or tennis). As the season progressed, I began to experience my symptoms again. While I would sprint short distance, I would feel nauseous, get headaches, dizziness, and become out of focus. After a month of experiencing this I went back to the doctor where I was told that these symptoms were related to my concussion again. I got more tests done such as an MRI and an MRA to figure out what was causing it. It was determined that when I reached full exertion the auto-regulator in my brain that affected my blood pressure would cause my blood pressure to drop, which was what was giving me the symptoms. The only solution was to try to get myself physically stable and stronger by going on an exercise/running plan, to try and retrain my brain so that I could run and exert myself and not have symptoms anymore.
In early September of 2013 I went for my last doctor’s appointment, which was when finally all of my symptoms had gone away. Although I was still not cleared to do contact sports, finally I was able to be almost back to normal, even though after my last concussion I will never actually be “normal” again.
The hardest part of not being able to play is watching everyone else play the sport that you love. I am now the manager of the varsity team at Longwood, and also one of the captains for my travel team. I’m lucky that my coaches are understanding and try to keep me involved as much as possible. It was a tough choice of deciding whether I should stay away from soccer because it was too painful to watch, but in the end it was impossible for me to be away from the sport that I love.
There have been a few positive things that came out of this experience. I have now realized that I am interested in a career in athletic training, and will hopefully be able to follow in the footsteps of my dad. I also presented a speech to my dad’s athletic training students at Stony Brook University to show how much athletes can be affected by their injuries. This is part of my attempt to promote concussion awareness.
I constantly have dreams and flashbacks about the moment I got hit, and I get anxiety whenever I pass the high school where it happened. Being a sideline ref, I have also emailed heads of soccer organizations to suggest a rule that a player must be taken off the field immediately after getting a head injury. If I didn’t keep playing in the game, maybe my injury might not have been as severe, and I want to do everything possible to prevent this from happening to someone else.
I would do anything to go back to that moment and try to prevent what happened to me. But at least I’ve learned that everything happens for a reason, and to never take anything for granted. I’ve learned that there are so many other people who have it worse than me. I am lucky that I can still get good grades, be able to do physical activities, and even do the simplest things like walking. After reading other stories of people who have still not recovered, I’m thankful for Hayley Queller, M.D, Michele Cordova, ATC, and my family for being my support system through every obstacle I have faced this past year.