Tag Archives: Sara Birkholz

Sara Birkholz, on Post Concussion Syndrome, From the Trenches

imagesaraThe past several months I have picked up and read books about personal accounts of survival. The authors have amazed me with their strength and their new outlook on life once they have emerged from whatever dark tunnel or trial was placed in their life. As I finished reading each story, however, I could not help but wonder what their story would look like if they had written it in the midst of their battle. I have struggled to write this article because I do not yet have the insight of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I do not know how my “crisis” so to speak, will turn out. I decided in a way this is a good thing because the purpose of The Knockout Project is to educate people on what the ramifications of a concussion can be. Stepping into the life of someone who is currently living day in and day out with the consequences of a concussion can shed a lot of light on why it is so important to protect ourselves and those we love from being injured.

First I would like to start with the definition of concussion. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that alters the way your brain functions. In the past when I heard someone had suffered from a concussion, I did not think much of it. My first reaction was NEVER “Bobby received a traumatic brain injury today during football practice.” Instead I thought, “whew, Bobby had his bell rung a bit at football practice and should be fine.” I am sure that is the way the majority of people feel about concussions. I thought this way about concussions until last August.

On August 7, 2012, our family decided to end a fun three day trip to Duluth, MN by going on the new Alpine Coaster at Spirit Mountain. After all, it was on the way out of town and the kids were pretty pumped about riding it. I hopped on the sled like contraption with my daughter. As we left the boarding station the employee told us “go as fast as you can, the sled is attached to the tracks and you cannot be thrown off.” Of course once my 10 year old heard that great news, we were full steam ahead. As I saw the first turn approaching I felt like we were going much too fast and leaned forward to grab the brake. I was too late, and because I had not leaned into the turn and was in an awkward position, I got whipped to the right. I actually felt my head snap and was dazed the rest of the way down the mountain. At the bottom I told my husband and kids that I did not feel well and that I was jarred on the first turn. We all just laughed and talked about mom being a wimp and getting too old to go on rides.

Within 48 hours from my ride down the mountain, I started having dizzy spells.

Within 72 hours I ended up in the emergency room because I could not stop throwing up. I did not even initially associate my symptoms with anything that had happened at Spirit Mountain. I thought to have a concussion, you had to be knocked out. Many tests were ordered to figure out what was going on with me and why I was suddenly having a “neurological event” (that is what the doctors described it as on those first few days). Eventually, I was sent home with the “good” news that my CT and MRI were both clear.

It was not until about 10 days after the accident, and continued nausea, vomiting and dizziness, that I called the neurologist to tell him about the Alpine Coaster ride. He confirmed that I did not need to be knocked unconscious to have a concussion and that I was indeed having concussion symptoms. He told me to continue as I was and all my symptoms should clear on their own within 6 weeks.

Fast forward to today, February 26th, 2013. I am almost 7 months post accident, and as I sit and type this article I am wearing sunglasses because the back light from the computer screen is excruciating for me. I have not had one moment since August without nausea, dizziness, light sensitivity, and disequilibrium. Up until Christmas, I was still vomiting almost daily. Even bending over to get laundry out of the dryer makes me feel like I am spinning so much I have to rush to a toilet. Every time I am in the car and we go from moving to a stop I have a wave of nausea come over me that is so severe that I have to prepare and have bags in the car. Entering into a big box store, like Target, makes me feel even more off balance and dizzy. I try to wear a baseball cap and sunglasses into stores but even that does not take away the increased nausea and disequilibrium that the fluorescent lighting causes. From the moment my feet hit the floor and my eyes open this is my current “normal”.

Before this accident I was an avid runner, taught spinning classes at the local gym, practiced law part time, helped coach my kids in various sports, spent tons of time with my girlfriends and family and absolutely loved and embraced every day. Today I struggle to even get through a day. I have prayed to die over and over because my physical symptoms are so horrendous. I cry myself to sleep many nights because I know in the morning I am facing another day like this. I feel awful 100% of the day. I have severe nausea 100% of the day. I am dizzy from the moment I stand up. I feel off balance 100% of the day. Grabbing milk and juice quick from a grocery store is excruciating with all the lights and stimulation.

People do not understand what it is like to live this way. I have gotten everything from “what is your problem, you just have a concussion” to “certainly you can’t still be having symptoms?!” But the worst was recently when I retrieved my file from the clinic and the doctor had written “hypochondriac” and “health anxiety” as his conclusions to my problems. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!! I could not make up these symptoms if I tried. And frankly, I would be living my life to the fullest not spending time at a clinic. That is all I want and pray for…..my old life back. It is a very scary moment when you are still sick and miserable every second of the day and the doctor who was in charge of “helping” you does not even understand concussions and doesn’t even believe you.

I am now seeing a new set of doctors in Minneapolis, MN who truly understand post concussion syndrome. Every time I leave their offices, I feel even more educated about brain injuries. In two short visits, they have gotten to the bottom of the dizziness and nausea. Apparently, my whole ocular system was knocked out of whack in the accident and each eye is focusing on a different objects and sending different messages to my brain. The scary part is about 50% of the brain is devoted to visual processing. So, I know I am still facing a long road to recovery with my therapists. I am also undergoing vestibular therapy to get my balance back. I never realized that one small, or what I thought was small, whiplash event could damage so many centers in my brain.

Finally, living with PCS is a very lonely journey. I have learned that as your symptoms persist, everyone moves on with their lives. Every once in awhile they throw you a “how are you?” Sometimes I tell people things are a little bit better only because I do not want to go through the process of trying to describe my symptoms. Sometimes I tell them I am little bit better because I wish so badly they were getting a little bit better. But the honest answer is “I am the same.” I have not seen any recovery in over half a year. PCS is a time when you really learn who your friends and loved ones are, and you learn that health, above anything else, is a true blessing you took for granted every day.

As you can see, when you are in the midst of a dark tunnel the story is not exactly inspiring but it is real! This is a very frank look at my current life with post concussion syndrome. In addition, you get to see how absolutely devastating a head injury can be. I do not have a history of concussions. This is my story after just one concussion event. All it takes is one event to have lingering, debilitating post concussion symptoms. I want people to realize that risking your brain to go back into a game is not a good decision. Riding a bike or going skiing without a helmet should be unthinkable. I could go on, but ultimately I want to educate others as much as possible, because even though I was in a freak accident, other people have the chance to step away from a sport or event before more damage is done. Also, I want to emphasize how important it is to find the right doctors and therapists if you are having lingering symptoms from a head injury. Trust your gut. The doctors are working for you and this is your brain not a cut that needs stitches.

I know in the end, God never gives us a challenge we cannot handle. With the help of my husband and two wonderful kids, current doctors and therapists, and the love of all my other PCS pals, I know this has to get better and I can continue to persevere. I plan to continue to update all of you on my progress in therapy and hope I can help anyone who is currently going through this. I hope someday I can write again with the insight of recovering from this monster. People with head injuries have an invisible injury. We look healthy on the outside, but deal with very real, disabling, miserable side affects every day. Concussions are not something to take lightly. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” And now you know.