13. "Your Trip Begins at Michigan"

One Too Many Battles

A couple of trips to the Emergency Room and several appointments with my primary care doctor didn’t get me any closer to understanding or resolving those terrifying new symptoms. 

None of the doctors I saw knew how to help me, and most of them had never even heard of prolotherapy.  So they did what many doctors do when they aren’t sure how to help someone: throw medication at the problem. 

I was loaded up with steroids to reduce the swelling in my neck and arms, muscle relaxants to manage the pain and twitching, and anxiety medication to help me cope with all the insane things that were happening to my body. 

None of these remedies did much, and pretty soon the depression I had been valiantly fending off for the last fourteen months hit me like a ton of bricks. 

I felt broken. My body, the same one that felt invincible for twenty-one straight years, that had been rigorously conditioned in the rink and on the fields, groomed and polished from countless hours in the weight room, had failed me.  The same arm muscles that had once easily released a wrist shot into the top corner of a hockey net now could no longer pick up a glass of water without trembling.

Because of this I didn’t just question my morals anymore, but now I rejected them.  Hard work was all I had ever known; it’s what allowed me to excel as an athlete, it’s what got me to one of the best universities in the world, and it’s what I felt so certain would get me over my concussion. But somehow the work I had put into healing had only gotten me here – to what felt like a black hole of darkness.

My existence felt inhuman, unlike anything I had ever experienced before.  I was fighting too many battles, and my mind was joining my body and shutting down. I began to give up if only as a way to cope with all the turmoil, because fighting everything only made me hurt more.

I stopped searching the Internet. I stopped reaching out to my doctors for answers. I spent my days and nights in my bed, even though the pain kept me from getting very much sleep. I ate very little, and when my dogs cheerily greeted me I looked away and walked on.  I didn’t speak often, and I never smiled.  It was as if my world was filled with darkness, and I didn’t want to let in any joy. 

When I was at my lowest point, however, I would have a few pockets of time when I’d snap out of this otherworldly state and come back to reality.  It was as if I was myself again, albeit only for a few brief seconds. 

I’d remember who I was and who I used to be before my concussion and the injections, during the simpler days when I was a Division One athlete, a Yale student, a social butterfly and dog-lover. I wanted so much to be pain-free, and to be that person again.

I had one of these “come to” moments one evening lying on the couch next to my mom.  I started balling in her arms and told her that the real me was still here; that I didn’t show up very often but I knew this part of me was still inside, buried deep underneath all the physical and emotional pain that made this person hard to find.  I begged her not to let me do anything crazy when I wasn’t myself, that never in my entire life had I needed her and the rest of my family more than I needed them now. 

This inevitably led to a conversation with my mom and dad about my next steps.  What was it going to take to get me better?  So many times I’d sit with my parents in our living room attempting to broach this subject, except this time each of us was speechless. 

Usually when we sat down to have a conversation like that, we’d come out of it with a game plan.  We’d talk things over, lay out the options, weigh the pros and cons and come up with something to do next.  That day, however, we left this conversation empty handed, as we had every other conversation since I got those injections.  We desperately wanted answers, a solution, a path to pursue, anything to get me on track to good health.  But we came up with nothing.  

So much of my journey has been incredibly hard – the loss of my sport and my identity, the lack of exercise, the physical pain, the isolation, the deterioration of my health – but the truth is, none of it compares to the hopelessness and despair I felt as a result of not knowing how to get well again.  For me, there was nothing more unbearable than not knowing how to heal, feeling forced to accept that the rest of my life would have to be spent in bed.  It was a feeling of such overwhelming grief that even now still gives me chills and makes my eyes water.

The Final Resort

In an attempt to get some advice from someone who knows the struggles of recovery all to well, my mom reached out to Pia Pearce, the mother of Kevin Pearce.  Kevin is a former professional snowboarder who suffered a TBI in 2009 while training for the Olympics, and, you might remember from a previous post, he and I met at a brain rehab facility in Atlanta.

Pia responded immediately to my mom’s plea for help.  She offered to connect us to a friend of Kevin’s who had suffered a major concussion and received help from a team of doctors at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.   

Before long I had been copied on an email that introduced Ellery Hollingsworth, a former professional snowboarder herself and longtime friend of the Pearce family.  Ellery promptly responded to our introduction and offered her sincerest sympathies for my predicament. I could literally feel her heart hurting for me as I read the kind and compassionate words she shared.  She so deeply related to my struggle; she understood its gravity and weight, and the overwhelming havoc a concussion can wreck on one’s life.

Yet when she offered to chat about her experience in Michigan over the phone, I felt reluctant because I was convinced I couldn’t be helped.  In the end, though, I agreed to talk to her. 

Ellery’s struggle to recover from her concussion was not unlike mine.  Daily, relentless migraines.  Day after day spent bed-ridden, lights off and blinds shut.  Doctors with misguided advice:  Keep resting.  Give it time.  You’re going to be fine.  

The University of Michigan’s concussion program, Neurosport, had been her last resort.  Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, the sports neurologist for the US Snowboarding team and leading concussion expert in the US, was the founder and centerpiece to the program.

I asked Ellery what made Neurosport different.  She told me it was a comprehensive, team-based approach to concussion care for athletes.  Dr. Kutcher learns all of the nuances of his patient’s concussion story, and then refers them to a variety of other doctors to form a big picture treatment plan.  These specialty doctors then work together as a team and support the patient every step of the way during recovery. 

“The neck guy actually helped me the most,” Ellery told me.  This sparked my interest.  They had a neck doctor (Dr. Miles Colwell).  This is good, I thought, because they need to have a neck doctor if I was to even consider going out there. I was still doubtful, however, because I had seen plenty of neck guys already and had come up empty-handed.

A few treatments with Dr. Colwell, some vestibular eye exercises, and a gradual return to physical activity guided by Dr. Kutcher put Ellery well on her way to a migraine free existence. 

I was so envious of her luck! I desperately wanted this.  If there was even the smallest chance that Dr. Kutcher and his team could help me reach this pinnacle, then maybe it was worth going out to Michigan and finding out. 

So Ellery connected me with Dr. Kutcher.  He was nice enough to hop on the phone with me because he wanted me to feel good about Neurosport before I planned a trip.

A Sign, Maybe

Even so, I needed a couple of weeks to think about the Neurosport concept.  I had already been disappointed so many times, and I couldn’t bear another wasted trip, or worse, another setback. 

I remember one night I was lying in bed unable to sleep, and I prayed – to God, to someone, to something, to anything – for a sign on what to do.  Should I give Michigan a try, or fly back to Vancouver?  Should I keep searching for a local doctor?  Should I do nothing and keep resting, and simply hope maybe one day I'd feel better? 

I only slept an hour or two that night, tossing and turning as I usually would, wrestling with the pain in my arms and head while trying to make a decision. I had gotten in the habit of getting out of bed around 5AM, if only for a change in scenery. That morning was no different as I left my room to lie on the couch in my living room, the TV on low volume. I couldn't tell you what I had been watching because I wasn’t paying any attention to it; I was half in and out of consciousness, exhausted from a poor night’s sleep.  But then, out of nowhere, a phrase on the television caught my attention. 

All I heard was: “Your trip begins at Michigan.” 

I opened my eyes, confused.  I used the remote to rewind to see if I had heard the television correctly.  It had been a commercial for “Pure Michigan”, which is an advertising campaign that markets the state of Michigan as a tourism destination. 

Here is one of their ads: 

It took me a few days to conclude that this could, in fact, qualify as some sort of sign.  And since nothing else so dramatically popped out at me like that phrase had, I decided to take it as one.  After a few more conversations with my parents, we agreed to book my trip to Michigan. 

Even so, I was absolutely terrified.  It was, quite literally, my last hope.  I had tried everything. I had exhausted all Internet searches, consulted with over 40 healthcare professionals, utilized every connection I had and spoken with every teammate, peer and friend who suffered from a concussion of their own. 

If it didn’t work out, if they couldn’t help me, if it failed as all of my other attempts to get well had, I would be out of options.  I would have nowhere else to turn.  I would have to officially condemn myself to a pain-ridden, emotionally traumatized life in bed. 

And so even though I was petrified, I went. 

The ad was right… my trip did begin at Michigan, and it was the best decision I've ever made.