A year ago today my life changed completely with a dirty elbow to the head from an opposing teammate.
It was during a pre-season hockey tournament in Kitchener, with my new team, Brampton Canadettes Senior A.
She received a penalty. I went to the bench, knowing right away that I didn’t feel right, but our team was already short-handed and I didn’t want to put us down another player on the bench. So I kept my mouth shut.
I played the rest of the game, constantly trying to refocus my eyes every time I lined up for a faceoff. I remember feeling nauseous and dizzy every time my shift ended and I was sitting back on the bench.
I couldn’t tell you how the game finished, whether we won or lost. I remember getting undressed and texting my boyfriend, who had been in the crowd watching, that I didn’t feel well. We had a few hours in between games and went out for lunch.
When I got back to the rink, I vaguely remember talking to my coaches to let them know that I didn’t really feel that great, but I wanted to get on the ice at least for the warm up and see how I felt, because we were facing a team I really wanted to play.
At some point during the game, I made the decision to bench myself because I knew I wasn’t okay. Never did I imagine I wouldn’t be back for the rest of the season and that one year later, I wouldn’t have picked up my stick, or worn my skates and may never lace them up in a game again.
POST CONCUSSION SYNDROME
Post Concussion Syndrome, or PCS, is a set of neuropsychological symptoms that may last weeks, months or years after a concussion. PCS can impair the ability to think, do and know – with memory, mood and attention deficits being the top three complaints.
Unfortunately, I am no stranger to concussions. In the 15 months leading up to this concussion, I suffered two others. One was at ball hockey nationals in August 2014 (another blind-sided elbow to the head that crumpled me to my knees), the other was when a 25 pound weight plate fell off a rack onto my face at the gym while I was working in July 2015.
Both times I went to see a doctor immediately after. Both times I left with a concussion diagnosis and was told to rest. No MRIs or other scans (not that concussions show up on those anyway), no recovery plan.
Before those, I suffered at least four other concussions going back as early as five or six years old when I fell off a set of monkey bars and slammed the back of my head off the platform in the park.
So this time around, I knew I had a concussion and didn’t bother going to see a doctor. Waiting four to five hours in the ER to be sent back home with a concussion diagnosis was a waste of my time.
But, even with all the rest and sitting in the dark, I wasn’t getting better. I tried to go watch a few of my team’s games but the arena lights and the sound of the buzzer sent a wave of symptoms over. I spent days at a time being too nauseous to stomach food. I could barely get out of bed the first few weeks.
But I still had to go into work, in a brightly lit gym, with loud music blaring, lifting heavy weights and putting them away and looking at computer screens all day.
At the end of December, I got in to see a specialist through some of my connections and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was talking to someone who actually KNEW something about concussions. He wrote up a ton of blood work requisitions to test different hormones at different times of the month and suggested a list of supplements for me to take. I think I ended up doing over five blood tests.
Within a few weeks I noticed a definite improvement with the supplements I was taking – 10,000 IU of vitamin D, omega 3 with DHA and EPA, magnesium citrate, iron, probiotics and turmeric. But I was still having a lot of trouble with memory, concentration, mood and some visual disturbances.
I hated not being able to play hockey and had huge goals for Obstacle Course Racing in the summer, so I started trying to go back to the gym again. Looking back now, I definitely went back to the gym too soon, and too hard, considering a year later I am not allowed to run, but I was still going for runs just a month or two after suffering the concussion.
My blood tests all came back normal so I was referred to Concussion North and finally got in to see the specialists there at the beginning of March.
By this time, I had quit my job at the gym and was working solely for myself, building my business which meant many hours sitting at the computer putting together my website. Huge no-no.
The specialists gave me so many rules to follow about how many minutes a day I could spend watching TV, reading or being on the computer (it was almost none) and they provided me with vestibular exercises to do three times a day at home. I was also given a list of VERY minimal exercise I was allowed to do (biking only, very low exertion).
As I started progressing through the vestibular exercises, I was given exertion drills to add to the mix such as 180 jump turns, 360 jump turns and burpees. I have yet to be able to do 360 jump turns for a minute without falling over and feeling the need to vomit.
Knowing my upcoming race schedule, the athletic therapist was trying to progress me to more difficult workouts, and started allowing me to do push-ups, squats and planks. It was so slow and boring, that I couldn’t find the motivation to do it, especially since it always left me feeling so tired after, I needed to sleep all afternoon and then wouldn’t get any work done.
Fast forward to May and I was still not cleared for running, but my OCR season had started. I still went to the races, and walked them, while wearing my heart rate monitor to ensure I didn’t exceed what I was allowed to do. If I did, I had to sit down and take a break until my heart rate came back down.
While I wasn’t getting the same debilitating headaches anymore, I was still extremely tired all the time. I would wake up feeling like I hadn’t slept, even though I slept for eight hours. There were days where my memory and concentration were good, and other days were I was dyslexic while trying to speak, and mixing up words and sentences.
I always had a love for Jeopardy!, but it started becoming an integral part of my recovery, for myself. I would notice on bad days, that I would struggle to blurt answers out, even when I knew them. I would be snapping my fingers saying “ohhh, ohhhh I know this…” but couldn’t get the words out. Then other days I’d have no problems at all hammering out answer after answer.
My boyfriend could tell as soon as I woke up if it was going to be a good day or a bad day. The first tell was my eyes. If they were glossed over, I typically had a really bad day. When they were more clear, I typically had a good day.
In July I finally got released from the physiotherapist and was cleared from a vestibular standpoint. The athletic therapist gave me permission to start lightly running again but I was still not allowed to train full out, as when I reached a certain heart rate, symptoms started to reappear.
I was SO EXCITED because I felt like I could get in a month or so of running before the Ultra Beast, and more importantly, actually start training for OCR World Championships in October.
Wouldn’t you know, mid-August (just one month before OCRWC), I had a relapse. While driving through an intersection, someone ran a red light and I had to SLAM my brakes in order to avoid being completely t-boned by him. How he managed to swerve around my car at the speed his pick-up truck was going while towing a trailer, is beyond me.
The force of slamming my brakes gave me whiplash and for the next week, the all too familiar early stages of concussion symptoms all came back. Luckily, they only lasted about two weeks.
Unlucky for me, a week after those symptoms disappeared, I took a tennis ball off the back of the head from my doubles partner one night. I haven’t been the same since.
The specialists at Concussion North put me back on very restricted exercise (absolutely no running) and I failed my exertion test on the bike. It was recommended that I bow out of OCRWC.
At the end of September I went back to the clinic to check on my exertion levels and see if I could take another crack at the test. Before getting started, my resting heart rate was 49, which was the lowest I had ever seen it.
Within a minute or two at very minimal exertion on the stationary bike, my heart rate shot up. The athletic therapist was concerned, but had me slow down even more, to see if my heart rate would change. It kept climbing higher.
Finally, with a panic-stricken face, she asked me to get off the bike and she jogged out of the room, coming back with the Sports Medicine Doctor and a stethoscope. That’s when things started to get serious.
The Doctor started questioning my family’s heart history and even asked me if anyone had ever died young of heart complications. WHAT?!?
So I was told NO EXERCISE AT ALL until I could see a cardiologist. Tears filled my eyes. I asked about OCRWC and got the obvious answer. (I still did go, by the way, I walked the entire race and spent 8 hours on the course).
I left the clinic, got in my car and bawled my eyes out. I had never been so scared of my athletic career ending. I didn’t even care about hockey anymore, still really don’t. But not being able to run, or compete in OCR or the possibility of not being able to be active scared the crap out of me.
My first appointment with the cardiologist was at the beginning of November. I received a 72-hour Holter monitor, and did an ECG and an echocardiogram.
My next appointment to actually speak with the cardiologist is November 30, at which point I will get a little bit more insight into my fate.
It’s been one year to the day since that hit and today I still have 24/7 ringing in my ears and often feel pressure in my ears and have to pop them, even if I haven’t changed altitude, I have floaters on my left eye that were not present before, but according to my optometrist my eyes are still 20/20 and healthy, I get heart palpitations and my heart rate does not respond to exertion properly, if I am in a crowded place I get more anxious, I still sometimes get affected by bright lights and loud noises, a few times a week I still get dizzy spells, I still have concentration problems and I often feel very tired and unmotivated.
I have also lost 16 pounds of muscle and a lot of my identity as an athlete.
I am very hopeful that there will be an end to all of this, as I have my eyes set on big goals for the 2017 racing seasons.
What I have learned through all of this is that there are not many doctors out there that actually know about concussions and even many of the doctors who act like they do, still don’t. I’ve been lucky to be connected to the good ones.
I have also found that when I take my supplements and eat a clean diet, my symptoms are not as noticeable, but when I forget to take my supplements (it’s been a few weeks now…) and start letting processed food, and especially sugar, slip in to my diet, I have more problems.
Just in the hour and a half it took me to spill these 2,000 words out, my eyes have completely glossed over, my head is pounding and I feel like I am going to throw up…so I will leave you at that.
If you or someone you know has had to deal with PCS, please feel free to drop me a comment.