On the rebound
Allyson Bailey is one of more than 170,000 young athletes who were taken to a hospital emergency room last year due to a concussion. Her experience – painful headaches, difficulty performing routine tasks, depression – serves as a reminder for every coach and parent of a young athlete just how serious concussions are and the importance of removing players from the action the moment a concussion is suspected.
By Linda Alberts
Allyson Bailey was like any other 16-year-old girl. She liked hanging out with her friends and spending time with her boyfriend. She was a sophomore at a Roanoke, Va. private school maintaining straight A’s in honors classes while playing on her school’s basketball, volleyball and soccer teams.
She had no idea, as she laced her sneakers for a basketball game on the evening of January 23, 2013, that she would become one of the 173,285 sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients treated in emergency rooms each year.
Allyson doesn’t have memory of this night anymore. All that she and her parents know about the moments leading up to the incident are recounted by friends who witnessed it. During the third quarter Allyson went up for a rebound and as she was coming down a player from the opposing team was jumping up. She hit the middle back of her head on the player’s knee and fell to the floor, hitting the same area of her head again. She laid on the court, unconscious, and the game was stopped when it became clear she was injured. She eventually tried standing up, but couldn’t do so without help. Eventually an ambulance was called to take her to the hospital.
Allyson’s parents were not at the game that night, which was a rare occurrence. Allyson’s mom, Linda Bailey, usually kept stats of the game with Laura, her other daughter, on the sidelines, while Allyson’s father kept score from the stands. However, on this night Allyson’s parents were at a company dinner for her father’s work.
The Baileys arrived at the hospital just as the ambulance was bringing Allyson in. “We saw them take Allyson out of the ambulance. She was on a backboard and in a neck brace,” Linda said. “They taped her head to the backboard so it was immobilized while being transported. She was very sensitive to light and looked like she was in a great deal of pain. She didn’t talk much at all and kept her eyes shut most of the time.
“I remembered a conversation the athletic director and I had just a week before about concussions and how bad they could be. I remember thinking about the signs of a severe concussion – loss of memory, difficulty thinking clearly, blurred vision, nausea – and thinking Allyson didn’t have all those symptoms. The longer we were in the hospital and talking with her, the more I thought we were in the clear and out of the woods for a severe concussion. She was talking to us, remembering things, and even though she was in pain and very light-sensitive, she did smile some.”
Later that night Allyson was released to go home and her parents were given instructions on how to care for her and symptoms to be aware of. While Allyson did sleep a lot, she acted strange and was in a great deal of pain when she was awake. Her condition seemed to get worse as the day progressed so her parents took her back to the emergency room, where she was admitted for the next four days.
“I learned later that a patient could take up to seven days post-concussion to show all the symptoms they will have,” Linda said. “This was the beginning of a long, long road to recovery.”
LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY
About a month after the incident Allyson was cleared to return to school by her neuropsychologist. She started to attend half-days at school, not to do school work, but just to see if she could stand the interaction without increased headaches.
“I remember when I started trying to go back to school, and getting frustrated with how much I could not do and how much I missed,” Allyson said. “People treated me differently and I felt like everyone was staring at me. I had a lot of close friends before and I felt like I didn’t have them anymore. When trying to do school work I would struggle with forgetting something right after I read the paragraph. I would get home and not remember anything I had done that day during school. It was so frustrating because I had a fabulous memory before and my friends were always jealous of how I could study and remember stuff with ease.”
Shortly after returning to school, Allyson would face a detour in her recovery. In the beginning of April, approximately two months after sustaining her concussion during the basketball game, Allyson and her mother were in a car accident resulting in a four car pile-up.
“This second incident, which can be compared to someone with a concussion who has a bad second impact in their sport, started a decline in Allyson,” Linda said. “Since Allyson’s brain had only about two months of healing time from the original concussion, her brain was reinjured. This time Allyson was much worse than before.”
The week following the car accident, Allyson’s symptoms worsened. She couldn’t walk for days, was very irritable, stuttered and mixed up words when she spoke. Her mother says her mentality was similar to that of a kindergartner. She was easy entertained by games like Sorry!, stickers, simple puzzles and Silly Putty.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. Allyson experienced extreme personality change and irritability that would last for months. She had hallucinations and nightmares to the point that she wanted to check herself into a mental hospital. She sunk into depression.
“I was terrified of everything…sleeping, going somewhere in a car. I didn’t want to leave the couch,” she said. “I thought people who said they were depressed were just saying that to get attention. I don’t think that way anymore.”
In the fall of that year Allyson started to get her personality back. While she was still in pain and experienced headaches every day, she was able to endure them and return to school part time.
In February of this year – just a year after Allyson’s first incident on the basketball court – she experienced another impact from a second car accident. This time Allyson and her mother were struck by a drunk driver. She experienced a significant increase in pain and headaches; however, unlike the aftermath of the first car accident her attitude and personality didn’t change and she didn’t lose her ability to walk on her own or speak. “To me, this showed that her brain had done a lot of healing over the course of 10 months,” Linda said.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
The past two years of recovery have been filled with medical appointments as the Baileys sought answers to help Allyson heal from her concussion as well as other diagnoses that have occurred due to her concussion, such as an autonomic nervous system dysfunction that causes a fluctuating heart rate and inability to control internal body temperature, nerve damage in one ear and vision issues. She has received treatment through physical therapy, vision therapy and even driving rehab, to name a few.
But finding the answers they needed was difficult because doctors discharged her as a patient when they felt that they couldn’t help Allyson anymore. One doctor released Allyson and gave the family no guidance as what to do next. “He basically discharged her without giving us any alternatives as what to do or where to go next. He also said her symptoms were ‘atypical of those who have concussions’ and that it didn’t make sense to him,” Linda said. “Unfortunately, as I have navigated through this journey, I have found this all too common for people getting treated for concussions.”
Allyson is now seeing her third doctor for treatment. “Once we found our new doctor, things started to improve, and moving to some great quality multivitamins, Omega 3 supplements and other medication changes have helped,” Linda said. For the first time in a while, they are hopeful of Allyson’s future.
“Even though we still have a long way to go before we can say that she is fully recovered, we are in a much better place than we were this time last year,” Linda said. “We expect to see more recovery in Allyson throughout this year, both in terms of cognitive ability, as well as strength and stamina.”
Between Allyson’s concussion and setbacks from two car accidents, her education has been disrupted. Although she tried going to school for half days and auditing classes for the purpose of social interaction, she is now fully home schooled. Her private school tried to accommodate her needs, but they just weren’t equipped to do so.
SEARCHING FOR NORMALCY
For the past two years Allyson couldn’t take part in any normal teenage activities, like going to the movie theater or school field trips. Instead she lived vicariously through her sister, boyfriend and one other trusted friend.
“She really wanted them to tell her all about their days and what they did in detail,” Linda said. “She pretty much lived through them.”
Currently Allyson is catching up on classwork from the 10th and 11th grades. “We are taking it slow and will progress as she can,” Linda said.
They have found an accredited online school so that Allyson can earn her high school diploma. “This way, she can go at her own pace, while continuing to heal and get stronger,” Linda said. “She may be able to graduate on time and start the process of entering college, with accommodations of course.”
Allyson wants to go to college to become a physical therapist. Taking from her own experience of having to switch from multiple doctors over the last couple years and having to keep multiple therapy appointments each day, Allyson’s ultimate goal is to open a full-service concussion center. All of the doctors, therapists, nutritionists and other medical providers will be in one place for concussion patients to visit.
“Having gone through this awful trial in life, I believe that there was a reason for this and I would like to help and inspire people in any way possible, whether it be concussion patients or anyone going through a tough time and needs inspiration,” Allyson said.
Although things are looking up, and the Bailey family is optimistic of Allyson’s recovery, the process has been trying for the whole family, especially Allyson who has to live with an invisible injury.
“It is very hard for the patient to deal with others’ perceptions. This isn’t a broken arm that people can tell is hurt,” Linda said. “Brain injury is internal, and if you haven’t been through it before, you have no idea what that person is going through. They may seem fine on the outside, but inside they are barely able to deal with the outside world they so desperately want to be a part of. They just want to seem normal to everyone but they know they aren’t and they have a hard time fitting in as they once did. Others need to try to make them feel included and treat them the same until they are healed.”
Allyson added, “I think this experience has changed my way of thinking in that I appreciate every little thing I am able to do. Kids my age complain about going to school or working out, but for me, to be able to do those things like I did before the concussion would be amazing, and I know it will come back to me. Also, I just see how immature some people my age are and they need to be appreciative of every little thing because it could be taken away in an instant.”
Caring for a child with a concussion
Since her daughter was diagnosed with a concussion last year, Linda Bailey has gone through a whirlwind to be attentive to her daughter’s needs, and become a concussion expert in her own right. Here are her tips for taking care of a child who has sustained a concussion:
- Never give up on finding the right medical doctor to head your child’s care. Keep searching until you find a doctor as dedicated to healing your child as you are.
- Follow cognitive rest instructions exactly as the doctor has prescribed and limit access to TV and electronics.
- Document the recovery process in a journal. Recovery is a very slow process so there isn’t much you will notice day-to-day. Keeping a journal from the day of the concussion forward will help you see how much of a recovery has taken place.
- Be prepared to be your child’s medical advocate. You have to take all the medical advice you receive and decide what is best for your child. You will need to be their voice to make sure they get treatments and accommodations they will need to help them through recovery.
- If you suspect a concussion, go to the nearest emergency room immediately. No bump is too small!
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