Sudden Impact

Illustration by Justin Winslow
Illustration by Justin Winslow

[Editor’s Note: A NYC mom told this story to Anna Sims. We agreed on anonymity to respect her and her daughter’s privacy.]

When my daughter, Shannon*, hit her head during a high school basketball game, I didn’t panic. Shannon was a junior black belt in karate and had been the starting point guard on the  JV basketball team when she was in 8th grade, so I’d been through my share of sports injuries.

The team was playing its last game of the regular season when Shannon fell while going in for a charge. Then, another player tripped over her, causing Shannon to hit her head again. Shannon, of course, still wanted to play. The referee forced her to sit out for the rest of the third quarter, but when the fourth quarter began, she was back on the court as her team won the game.

“How are you?” I asked immediately after the game. “I have a tiny headache, but I’m really fine,” she insisted. She looked fine, too. Between the thrill of winning and the excitement of attending her first school formal that night, she showed no signs of pain.

But she came home early from the dance that night, complaining that she was dizzy and her head was throbbing. A trip to the pediatrician confirmed that Shannon had a concussion. She needed to stay home from school and away from light and loud noises, which would make her headaches worse. A week later, when her symptoms hadn’t improved, the pediatrician said she needed to see a neurologist. I immediately went from worried to terrified. What if my daughter had permanently damaged her brain?

Thus began a months-long process of visiting neurologists who couldn’t find anything wrong with Shannon. “She’s fine,” they’d tell me, saying if she just rested a bit longer, she’d feel better. Some thought she could to go back to school already.

But my daughter wasn’t fine. She couldn’t be around loud noises, sit in a room with the lights on, look at a computer screen, or even read a book. She was a teenage girl who couldn’t hang out with her friends and a star athlete who couldn’t exercise. She was miserable.

On top of that, she was missing months of school, and we feared she would have to repeat 8th grade. The school agreed to let her start 9th grade in the fall if she could pass five subject tests, and thanks to help from tutors and her own determination, she did it.

By the fall, she was less sensitive to light and noise and able to go back to school, but she was a shadow of the straight-A student she once was. The headaches persisted, sometimes causing her to temporarily black out during class, and I still couldn’t find a doctor who could help her.

That spring I saw an ad in the New York Times for a concussion therapy group at the NYU Langone Concussion Center. These doctors gave her much more extensive testing than she’d received in the past. I hate to admit it, but I was happy when they found something wrong with her. Now there was something we could fix.

Shannon had damaged her ocular and vestibular systems, which meant she had issues in her ears and eyes that were affecting her balance and causing the dizziness and headaches. She immediately started working with ocular and vestibular physical therapists and the improvement has been amazing. She’s much more cautious than she used to be—she worries about hitting her head and is still deciding if she wants to start playing basketball again, but Shannon is almost completely recovered.

Shannon’s story is not unique. There are kids who suffer from concussions whose bedrooms have to be fit with special light because they’ve been so injured. Ultimately, my daughter is really lucky. But what she went through could have been prevented.

When a child gets a head injury he or she needs to be examined right away. If it turns out to be a concussion, then the child needs to stop what he or she’s doing immediately. Doctors have told us Shannon likely made her injury worse by continuing to play in the game. If my family had the information then that we do now, we maybe could have helped Shannon recover sooner.

*To respect the privacy of the author and her daughter, all names in this story have been changed.