My life after concussion: Finding a new game

Esther playing soccer before her concussion and practicing her golfswing after her injury

I am a 15-year-old rising high school junior.

I suffered a severe concussion in April 2013 while playing soccer and continue to experience daily intermittent headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness and memory deficits. Before my concussion, I was an avid soccer player — I played on three teams including a competitive club team — and also played tennis, hockey, and skied.

I definitely underestimated the severity of my concussion. I went to school the next day and was diagnosed when the baseline test at school revealed red flags. Still, I continued to underestimate. I pressured myself to get back to my soccer team and to keep up in school.

I’ve learned a few important lessons during my recovery.

Educate others, find good support, and be a confident self-advocate.

I cannot count how many times I have been told my exemption from sports at school made me “lucky,” or the fact that I couldn’t take final exams a month after my concussion was “lucky.” Luck is not a word I would choose to describe a life-altering injury.

Concussions are a silent and invisible injury. Without a cast or crutches to show others you are injured, you get plagued with questions.

  • “Why aren’t you playing soccer?”
  • “Why do you even have that soccer jersey; you don’t play!”
  • “Why do you have extended time for assessments?”
  • “Why weren’t you at school?”

Even my closest friends struggle to understand how this injury has changed my life. Soccer was my passion. I had played since I was three, and I loved my club teammates and coach. Not only did I lose a community and a passion, but I lost a piece of myself. Being an athlete was a shared interest with friends and family members, and losing this aspect of my life has created a void.

Friends, classmates and family may not realize or understand what you have experienced. It is important to gently educate others: without complaining, remind them of what they cannot see. Maintain your self-esteem in the face of changes and amidst doubters: you are the same person, even if you cannot do all the same things.

Finding good advocates is crucial.

I have wonderful advocates in my parents, my advisor at school, my pediatrician, my physical therapist, the school nurse and in Dr. Alex Taylor and Dr. Michael O’Brien at Boston Children’s Hospital. All have gone to bat for me, advocating for extra time for tests, discussing a new medicine or recommending alternative therapies.

Advocacy isn’t a one-time thing, especially for those with lingering symptoms. Surrounding yourself with a group of people who know you and want what is best for you is helpful and reaffirming.

Listen to your symptoms, and don’t focus on “average” or “normal” recovery time.

I was and still am a Type-A person. I was extremely motivated to be the best that I could be, in academics and athletics, and I did not immediately realize the concussion meant I had to throttle back quickly.

This was hard for me. I wanted to keep attending soccer practice even though I wasn’t allowed to participate. I wanted to keep my strong grades, leading me to push through endless homework and assessments despite pain, headaches and fatigue.

Your school’s administration can be your friend. They do not want you to suffer, but you need be a self-advocate. Concussions can be vastly different. Communicating with your school and caregivers is imperative in order to receive the treatment and accommodations you need.

I wish I had given myself adequate time to rest and recover. I was initially told the average was four weeks. I became more and more nervous as months passed, and my symptoms remained. After talking with other athletes at Boston Children’s, I learned concussions can sometimes take years to resolve.

Don’t linger upon them, but do acknowledge the losses.

Concussions are laden with losses. I was an athlete and a very good and committed student. Rather than constantly getting ahead on homework or working out on my own, I was now hanging on for dear life to complete assignments in the manner to which I was accustomed, and moderate exercise provoked symptoms.

Everything seemed to take longer and be harder. For a long time, I lost my identity as an athlete. Prior to my concussion, I prided myself on my excellent memory for names and faces. Post-concussion, I have struggled with memorizing facts and remembering faces.

I used to thrive under pressure, and I liked to take risks. I loved the final minutes of a soccer game with a close score. I loved giving presentations in school. I loved to take the double black diamond skiing even though it was icy. Now, I’m overly cautious, flinching when anything comes within 10 feet of my head.

Recognize what you are facing, and give yourself a break. Begin to take small risks again. Continue to embrace all you can. Let yourself acknowledge what you have lost — but move on.

I often find myself plagued with ‘what-ifs:’ what would have happened with soccer if I had continued playing, what would my grades have been like if I hadn’t had a concussion, what extracurriculars would I have had time for if schoolwork didn’t take longer? But I have learned to not take things for granted, and I can go forward with the knowledge that I am prepared for what life throws at me, and with the recognition that I can adapt.

Don’t be afraid to move on. Find new passions.

The single best thing I have done was to throw myself back into sports. My doctors recommended I find something low-impact and non-contact.

I chose golf. It was an activity important to my uncles, and honestly I didn’t consider it much of a sport. You take one swing, amble a while, swing again and walk some more. I preferred high velocity contact and team sports. After playing golf, I have gained a great deal of respect for golfers. Golf requires skill, focus and athleticism. I have really loved playing a sport again and learning a new and challenging game.

I developed other new passions. I started writing for my school newspaper, worked hard and was recently appointed an editor. On the editorial board, I have found a new team, and the velocity of research and the deadlines provide a new adrenaline rush.

I increased my volunteer work, both at a nursing home and teaching tennis to underprivileged kids. I have learned so much from the residents at the nursing home and have been honored to be a role model for the kids to whom I teach tennis. All of these are joys I never would have found had I continued to play competitive soccer.

One post-concussion highlight was discussing brain injury on NESN with Dr. Taylor.

I believe now that when one door closes, another door opens.  My biggest piece of advice is to get back in the game — even if it’s a new game! 

Learn more about the Boston Children’s Brain Injury Center. Make an appointment for baseline concussion testing.

About the blogger:

When this post was originally published in July 2015, Esther was a rising junior at BB&N in Cambridge. She is passionate about academic excellence and particularly loves the sciences and English. She was an avid soccer, hockey and tennis player prior to her concussion and now plays golf and rows for BB&N’s crew team. She is an editor of her school newspaper, The Vanguard. She devotes much of her summers to community volunteering, serving the Cambridge Tennis Club’s Outreach Program for disadvantaged Cambridge kids and the Cambridge Homes, a residential living center for the elderly. Esther was recently appointed to Boston Children’s Hospital’s Teen Advisory Council and is honored to have that leadership opportunity. She recently appeared on NESN with Dr. Taylor for the NESN-Boston Bruins Concussion Awareness program featuring Boston Children’s Brain Injury Center and spoke at the Corey Griffin Pro-Am Tournament. Esther lives in Cambridge with her parents, an older brother Zach who is a rising sophomore in college, and her dog Addie.