Graduating NJ HS Senior’s Concussion Complicates The End of Her School Year

{Editor’s note: I can’t think of any time that’s a good one to suffer a concussion and ensuing symptoms, but the crunch time leading up to high school graduation seems exceptionally brutal. Becca echoes the uncertainty that all of us who suffer from PCS feel. Her positivity, however, is what will lead her through it. –Jay}

beccaBy Becca Earnest

Wednesday April 30th, 2014.

My accident isn’t due to an athletic injury, although I did play my share of softball, field hockey, and a teeny bit of soccer when I was young. I didn’t hit my head in a brave, heroic type of way how most athletes suffer their concussions. Although I do remember very well the defeated feeling you receive when you’re told you’re not allowed to go back to playing the sport you’re most passionate about. I was on the verge of tearing my rotator cuff my freshman year of high school playing for the lady lions softball and I was told that if I was to continue playing and continuing to wear out my arm, I would probably need surgery and have to deal with that injury for the rest of my life. But that’s beside the point, I just wanted to say that I identify with that loss and kudos to those of you that turned that loss into a gain and are helping other players out. You’re the realest of the MVPs out there.

My accident that resulted in my head injury was from a simple little fender bender on my way to school one morning. It was 7:30 and like always, I was running late. The school had just changed to a new traffic pattern and as I sat there in the long, jam-packed line of students going to school and parents dropping their kids off, I became a little more than skeptical of this new drop off plan. There is a period of time that I do not recall moments before the impact, I don’t know what I was doing, I don’t remember the song on the radio, or even where I was looking. I do remember thinking though, that if the car behind me wasn’t paying attention, that would be one hell of an impact. I honest to God, remember thinking “what if?” That was only a brief thought, as the driver behind me, also on his way to school, rear ended myself and my brother in our parents’ 2011 Hyundai Tucson.

I remember getting out of the car immediately after the impact and it not really registering yet what had just happened. I looked at his crinkled hood and then I realized my car was still in the middle of the road and got back in and pulled off to the side. I didn’t even stop to look to see if mine was driveable. I did a quick look at what I looked like in the mirror and took note of a pale face from shock, but there were no other signs that I could see of any other injury. I didn’t even stop to think about a concussion, or even think that was possible! I hit the back of my head on the head rest, and looking back at it now, I don’t really remember if I hit anything else. I don’t think I lost consciousness either, but I’m not entirely 100% clear on what happened. Some aspects of this accident are still foggy and a little questionable.

When you can’t remember exactly what happened, you cook up all of these scenarios in your head of what could’ve happened and it makes you even more confused because you start questioning every little detail. Especially when the other driver blames the impact on another car that cut me off. I don’t remember this happening. I stick to the story that the car in front of me stopped suddenly. I don’t remember anything out of the ordinary happening in those few seconds before the accident. Highway hypnosis? I don’t really know, but I know that I wasn’t in the wrong in either scenario. That gives me a piece of mind.

Teachers and staff looked over and asked if we were okay, some came over and waited with us briefly. Apparently the collision made a very loud noise; I should tell you that I have no memory of the sound it made. I was shaking uncontrollably and could barely pull my driver’s license out of my wallet when the cop asked for it. This being my first real car accident, I didn’t even know to have my license and registration out and ready for the cop when he came. Maybe you could chalk that up to the concussion disorientation? Who knows!

After about an hour of talking to the police, I went in to school still replaying the accident in my head; my mind was absent for the rest of the fifteen minutes until the bell rang. I didn’t start to feel stiff or get a headache until my second period of school. I believe this is due to the adrenalin rush after the accident, I feel that my symptoms were there, but I just wasn’t as aware of them as I could’ve been. I went home when I just couldn’t even listen to my teachers talk anymore. I was then checked out by my pediatrician who immediately diagnosed me with a whiplash injury and a possible concussion. I went into denial that I wasn’t okay. I was emotional and I remember being terrified of being in a car and angry at the fact that there was nothing I did to cause this.

I still am.

I stayed home from school the next day and don’t really remember much, but went to school the day after. It still didn’t really hit me until third period in my English class that I was not okay. My teacher, who had been the first to see me in class after the accident, tried to catch me up on what I missed the last two days. I couldn’t concentrate or tell her what I was going to write about for my senior research paper. The big research paper that we had spent the whole week talking about and prepping for. I had no idea what information I was covering for this paper. I don’t even remember what she was saying to me, it’s like I just stared at her and wasn’t processing anything she was saying.

It was then that she called over Alicia who was sitting a couple seats away. Alicia, having been battling Post-Concussion Syndrome herself, knew exactly what to say and all the right questions to ask. She was the first one to “diagnose” me with a concussion and that gave her the nickname of Dr. Jensen. She asked me what my symptoms were and when I couldn’t think of any, she rattled off a list of common symptoms of concussions. I had the majority of these symptoms. I didn’t even realize it. She immediately offered her help, made sure I had her number and told me to text her with any questions I had. Alicia has continually offered advice and her support while going through this long, draining process and I am forever grateful for that. I find it truly ironic that I sat next to her in our English class almost every morning this year seeing her battle through her PCS, only for me to suffer almost the same. Some things truly are meant to be.

After the accident, the whole month of May, I was probably in school under ten days, half days or full days. As a graduating senior, you can imagine how depressing that can be. The last month and a half of school is the only thing you look forward to. They are weeks filled with assemblies, speakers, prom, and all the excitement leading up to graduation. The days I did go to school, it was hard to believe how empty and ready to end, the school year was. I wasn’t ready; it’s as if my brain had stopped on April 30th. All of my friends were spending their last days of being Cherry Hill West Lions without me and I beat myself up about that.

Every time, without fail, that I would come back from being home for a few days, either a teacher or a student would ask me where I was or if I still had a concussion. My response would be irritated and harder to control each time. One just doesn’t understand the measures that a person has to take, to feel like themselves again. I wasn’t in school, because I was being told not to go, not because I just didn’t want to! They didn’t understand that. I wanted to be there. I wanted to complain about the research paper that almost every other senior was procrastinating, I wanted to see my friends and teachers and classmates and finish out the year on a good note. I wanted to go to school like any other normal, concussion free, graduating senior.

It’s hard to keep your emotions in check and stay positive while going through this. It feels as if your life is floating by and you’re watching everything happen from the sidelines. I’m supposed to attend college about two thousand miles away from home in New Jersey, at Northern Arizona University. This was a difficult decision to finally come to and I finally made up my mind just in the knick of time. My accident happened on April 30th, I was supposed to make an official decision on what college I was to attend the day after. I didn’t. I couldn’t. It hung over my head that whole day and week after the accident while I recovered in my dark bedroom. I had to ask for an extension to make the decision by May 15th. I did it and have since struggled through getting all of the already confusing and overwhelming financial aspects of college in order. It is very difficult to have to be on the phone, the computer and listening to everyone around me explain what needs to be done and when it needs to be done.

I have experienced no greater struggle than this and often wonder if I am really cut out for college. I, and my parents included, have wondered if traveling by plane to Arizona in August to start my journey at NAU is really the best thing for me right now. Will I be able to retain information and get the help I need in school? Will I succumb to the unrelenting depression that comes along with PCS? Can I emotionally and physically take all that “college life” has to offer? I don’t know. I don’t really necessarily want to find out either. I just want to be cured before August 16th, the date I fly out. Although, I know the chances of being fully recovered by then, are a bit lofty, there is still that hope there.

I truly commend Jay and The Knockout Project for trying to get the word out there about concussions. I find this so important now that I have been suffering through my deal of PCS. Post-Concussion Syndrome is a battle that a person has to go through everyday. It is life changing. Doctors, caregivers, friends, family, people, they should all be educated on what it is really like to go through the after effects of suffering a concussion. It is difficult for the people around the person to grasp all the limitations that the person has to go through and deal with. The Knockout Project’s goal is to educate people on how to deal with PCS, how to provide care for PCS sufferers, and most importantly, to educate athletes on how imperative it is to follow their return to play protocols. Unfortunately, we do not see the importance of these things until it has happened to us, or people around us. It needs to become more of a worry amongst everyone and The Knockout Project is serving to do just that.

After two months and probably a couple more to go, it has become clear to me that this battle is a very challenging and draining one. I have learned that I must stay strong and keep that determination. Post-Concussion Syndrome doesn’t define me and I will get through it.

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