Recovering from a Concussion
So, simply put: I smashed my face on Thursday. Knocked it so hard I don’t even remember the point of impact. I came to on a blindingly white mountain, on my knees, a snowboard strapped to my feet, bleeding from my nose; disoriented, literally without a knowledge of what year it was. I had to check my phone. January 2015. I called my girlfriend. “I just took a pretty bad fall,” I told her. “I think I’m gonna come home.” While we continued to talk, I realized I had blood on my shiny blue snow pants. My bright-green jacket was spattered down the sleeves, too. Droplets of dark red blood continued to stain the icy-white below me. “Okay, good to talk to you. Hey, I just took a gnarly fall, so I think gonna come home. I’ll see you soon.” “Babe? You just told me that,” she said. “No I didn’t.” “Should I come pick you up?” “Did I really say that twice?” “You did,” she told me, grave as can be. “That might not be a bad idea then, yeah,” I said. I took off my helmet and examined it for signs of damage. It appeared fine. My goggles weren’t even scratched. I turned my head left to try and figure out where I was. I saw mid-Vail. “Oh, there’s mid-Vail,” I thought amid the ringing. My eyes saw the landmark but my brain didn’t quite understand how I had gotten to this point. I live in Vail; I am never lost on the mountain. This time though, I was. A concerned skiier stopped to ask if I was O.K. “I don’t totally remember how I did this,” I told the man, gesturing at the blood dripping from my nose. “But I’m headed home now. I live here in town.” “Well don’t take any chances,” the man told me. “Yeah if it gets worse I’ll head to the hospital,” I reassured him. I nodded. I didn’t feel it, but the pain must have been enormous. I slowly slid down the rest of the black diamond.
My brain is foggy.
There is no other way to put it. My brain is far and away the best part of me, so I am afraid to see it go, even for just a quick weekend out. I take a break from writing this essay to watch the Colorado Avalanche on television. The announcer is discussing concussions. “You know the players say this is a game of collisions: at a point it’s almost inevitable.” The Avalanche are losing. They tie it up, and I feel rested enough to continue writing a bit before overtime starts. I forget that there is no overtime intermission. I write nothing. The Avalanche lose, 3-2.
I go snowboarding twice more in the days immediately following my injury; I have made plans which it would be rude to cancel. Friends come from out-of-town to see me. “Are you still concussed?” they ask me. I say yes; I do not nod. I ride conservatively. A careless stranger accidentally bangs the safety bar on the lift against my tall head. The blow rings around inside my helmet, and then inside my skull. I pop three of the innumerable extra-strength Tylenol pills in my pocket. Acetaminophen may be used to manage the pain of a head injury, but non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs such as Aspirin or ibuprofen should not be used, as they could exacerbate a bleed in the brain. The human body can metabolize 4,000 milligrams of acetaminophen in a 24-hour period before the liver begins sustaining permanent damage. That means eight extra-strength a day. I lose track of how many I am taking, but it feels like it is less than eight.
Proper concussion recovery necessitates not only physical rest, but cerebral rest as well. High school athletes are advised not to attempt any homework for up to a week; I am off reading and writing.
I find I cannot do my job, which involves reading and synthesizing information, effectively. I work from home, so I simply set aside the computer. They will go on without me. Instead, I watch the Peyton Manning play in the NFL playoffs, looking aged and inaccurate. The Broncos lose. The next day, it is revealed that Manning played the entire last month of football with an injured quadriceps. That’s impressive; I cannot imagine suiting up to play a game of football with my head swimming the way it is. It is an absolutely unthinkable prospect— and I once waited five hours to seek medical attention after seriously rupturing my spleen. Pain is no stranger to me. As I lay in bed, an icepack on my head, watching the Broncos take hit after hit, my level of respect for NFL players increases tenfold.
My face does not bloom purple; my brows do not swell. Besides a tiny abrasion on my chin and a small cut under my left eye created by my ski goggles being violently pushed into my face, I appear relatively unscathed.
I do not fade away and become gaunt, as I did when my spleen ruptured. I wear no sling. I have my ski town injury, but nothing to show for it. No one who does not know the story inquires about my health. Even those that do know do not seem to understand the thing. My girlfriend takes off work the night of the incident. She softly punches me in the head a few days later while trying to readjust a pillow. The plot of the Friends episode we are watching leaves me; I stare blankly for a few minutes, reveling in the loss of full-fledged, focused sensation.
I pick a fight with my girlfriend.
I tell her I do not think she is going anywhere. I say her dream to move to the Netherlands is likely impossible. She hasn’t put in the groundwork for something of that nature. She has no marketable skills and I have few. I do not care to see it through. “I feel like you have a lot of anger that you’re taking out on me,” she says, stony-eyed. Only later, as the days stretch on and my brain refuses to clear, will I learn that “Irritability, depression, anxiety, emotional lability” are symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. I don’t think I can attribute my being a dick to a knock on the head though. It doesn’t feel right.
Nothing feels right.
As most athletes know, the difficulty in recovering from a major injury is in restraint. The brain and the body run on two different tracks, and those of us who like to play hard never want to lay idle for as long as we should.
Before last year’s Super Bowl, reporters asked Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker if he would play in the game despite concussion symptoms. Welker had suffered two concussions that season. “What do you think? I mean, you want to be out there,” Welker said. “The Super Bowl, this is what you dream about. You’re going to be there, I don’t care what it takes, you’re going to be out there in this game.” The Broncos got clobbered in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8. I watched the game from the Intensive Care Unit, swimming in a Fentanyl haze as hawkish doctors and nurses watched my ruptured spleen for any sign of further deterioration. If my numbers dropped below a certain threshold, they stood poised to sweep my family and friends away, and to cut me open. My splenic rupture cost me four days in the hospital, two weeks off of university, and months of continuing pain at even the slightest physical exertion.
And yet, I was back in the climbing gym two weeks before the date my doctor had told me I was allowed to resume the activity. To a restless spirit- to a competitor- there is nothing worse than inactivity. It is soul-death. This is why, six months after the Super Bowl bout, Welker again found himself rollicked in the middle of a football field, sustaining his third concussion in a ten month span. Critics and commentators around the world of sports called for his retirement, asking “how many is too many?” Yet Welker plays on. What other option does he have?
It is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, especially in light of the mounting evidence that the effects of concussions are cumulative, not to mention the tragic suicides of several high-profile sports players, including NFL linebacker Junior Seau and a few NHL enforcers who made their living by taking (and giving) shots to the head. I’m not denying the stupidity of continuing to play contact sports, or to hit the slopes, or even to refuse rest while in a concussed state. Let me be clear: it is moronic. It is now over a week since my concussion: I have been snowboarding thrice, and attempted work on several occasions. I have written this essay, intentionally, before I have healed. I can think of no other way to properly convey the state of my mind. It is somewhat like being in love: your head and your heart are in two different spots. I know I shouldn’t risk my livelihood. I trade on my brain, and my sentences.
But much like Wes Welker, I am young, and I cannot stand not feeling alive.
Even if that kills me.