2. The Anatomy of a Concussion, How I Got Mine, and the Denial I Experienced in its Aftermath

The Injury  

Most people have a general sense of what a concussion is.  If you’ve never had one, you’ve surely known someone who has had one, and if you’re a sports fan, you’ve certainly heard them being discussed and debated on sports channels, particularly surrounding the high risk posed to NFL players. 

In the simplest of terms, a concussion is a blow to the head that produces a myriad of physical and cognitive symptoms.

When your head goes from a rapid acceleration to an abrupt deceleration it can cause a traumatic compression inside the skull.  An unanticipated, direct impact stops the head's forward motion, causing the brain to forcefully collide against the inside of the skull.  And if the blow is very severe, the brain can recoil backward and bang the back of the skull too.   

When there is insult to the brain in this way, a wave of cellular and molecular changes occur.  In our brain we have synapses that are very delicate strands much thinner than a hair strand, which connect different thought processes and chemicals.  When you take a blow to the head these synapses are damaged and prevent vital processes from working correctly. 

This is partly why concussion patients often have cognitive issues such as memory, confusion, and overall fogginess.  Other common symptoms include headache, blurred vision, dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity and noise sensitivity. 

A general sense of what a concussion is, though, doesn’t mean you truly understand them.  I don’t think most people truly understand just how bad they can be; failing to understand the fully painted picture of it’s potentially life shattering, all-encompassing and debilitating side effects.    

I think this because I used to be one of those people.  I used to not understand. 

I knew concussions existed. 

Yale athletes were obligated to watch a ten-minute video on concussions before each season. 

I watched teammates suffer from them. 

I heard about the NFL lawsuits. 

I saw all of this happening, and yet I still didn’t really get it. 

I failed to understand the severity of the injury because I had only ever witnessed or experienced it through others, and allowing myself to keep a detached understanding meant that I never really considered it a possibility for myself. 

This couldn’t and wouldn’t ever happen to me, I always thought.  And if it were to happen, I’d be back out on the ice in no time, making a speedy recovery and lacing up the skates once again.  After all, the statistics say that 85% percent of all concussions heal within 7-10 days. 

This number never felt totally right to me, though.  Most of the individuals I saw suffer from concussions had long, arduous battles of recovery.  Most of them took semesters or more off from school, returning home to a simpler, slower lifestyle while they sought out various methods of recovery. 

I saw this happen and certainly felt bad for the teammates and players who had to do this, but in all honesty I never gave it much thought beyond that.  Never thought too deeply about what that must have meant for those athletes:

The decision-process.  The uncertainty.  The suffering. 
The sadness, despair and fear.  The raw pain. 

The isolation.

The realization that you have no choice but to leave school because of an injury to your brain that has prevented you from doing the everyday activities you once so effortlessly tended to, to have the life you knew and cherished ripped away from you in a split second.  Because everything was just harder now and you couldn’t keep up.  And the hope that you’d recover within a mere 7-10 days was quickly and unforgivingly crushed with each passing day that only brought more suffering instead of relief.    

I never thought I’d have to go through something like that.  But I have, and I continue to everyday just as I have for the last 673 days. 

And I vividly remember what caused it all.

The Game

It was November of 2013, my senior year, and we were losing with less than five minutes left in the third period.

The puck had been in our defensive zone.

When my team gained possession, I followed our defensive zone break out and swiftly cut across the neutral zone ice, preparing to receive a pass from one of our defensemen. 

The pass went off without a hitch, but its perfect execution didn’t receive such successful follow through.  

I was laying face down on the ice before the puck even touched my stick. 

I had been blindsided, a hit from behind.  

I was violently thrown to the ice, the force creating an enormous shock to my system so jarring that my immediate reaction could only be one of complete and utter fury.  My body felt like it had been attacked.  I had never been so physically and mentally unprepared for such a forceful jolt to my body. 

It shook me to my core.

I immediately heard what sounded like those extraordinarily violent, ear-piercing violin chords in horror films at the climax of a life-altering scene.  

It was fitting for what was to come. 

These words may paint a dramatic picture of that moment over 22 months ago, but the truth is it was anything but dramatic for those around me.  Since the blow didn’t leave me unconscious, I refused to cause a scene or lay moaning in pain yearning for the medics to come to my rescue. 

I thought that to most bystanders, it probably looked like any old routine penalty.  I considered the player who hit me, too.  She surely hadn’t thought twice about me laying face down; after all, it had been her third penalty of the game and the second one she had taken against me. 

It was a bad hit, but it didn’t appear to be heart sinking for anyone except maybe my mother (she would later tell me she knew in that moment my ice hockey career was over).

Either way, I got up on my own and, after a few moments of catching my breath on the bench, I was back out on the ice playing.  Because surely a standard old routine penalty like that wouldn’t merit twenty-two months of suffering, wouldn’t abruptly and unjustly bring my hockey career to an end, wouldn’t lead me fighting tooth and nail to graduate on time, wouldn’t cause me to take a leave of absence from my first big job, wouldn’t create pain I didn’t know existed, and certainly wouldn’t send me traveling all over the continent to meet with confused and disagreeing doctors, not to mention lead me down a dark road of depression, anxiety, self-doubt and general existentialism. 

The Denial

I had never had a concussion before, and so my initial thought-process was one that consisted largely of lying to myself.

I tried not to give too much weight to the fact that my vision was fuzzy as I glanced around the locker-room, slowly undressing my gear while attempting to make sense of whatever it was my coach had to say after the game. 

I tried not to worry that my head felt ten pounds heavier than normal, or that I couldn’t focus on anything my teammates were saying while we were eating our post-game meals. 

Instead I told myself I probably just needed to hydrate and sleep it off, that I’d wake up and feel 100% again. 

I had taken bad hits before, I thought.  Be tough. 

And I had seen other athletes play through it before, so I should too, right?  Just pop some Tylenol, heat your neck and suit up for game two the next day. 

Finishing that game feeling as awful as I had when it started still wasn’t enough to convince me I should take a step back, and instead I naively told myself another nights rest must be what I needed.  I upped my water intake just to be safe and took more Tylenol too. 

The following morning, day three post-hit, I suffered through my team's morning lift in the weight room, telling myself that the grogginess I was experiencing must be because I hadn’t had enough coffee.  It was just like any other Monday, right?

Instead of giving any meaningful thought to the potential repercussions of continuing to play with a concussion, I took another round of Tylenol just as I had the day before and suited up for our on-ice practice. 

I had never missed a practice or a game at Yale before, and I told myself now was not the time to break that tradition.  Not now, three months shy of the culmination of my career as a competitive athlete; the bitter conclusion to a lifetime of hard work and dedication to a sport I loved. 

Time was precious.  I had worked too hard to take a break.  So I battled through practice even though it was all so clear that something was off. It had been clear from the moment I got hit.  It was so clear but I did everything I shouldn’t have done anyway.     

This self-inflicted, intuitive denial is a thought-process, I imagine, many athletes have experienced and will continue to experience so long as they choose not to take concussions as seriously as they should. 

As seriously as I wish I had.