18-year-old female former high school wrestler

On December 6, 2008, everything about my life had changed. It was a Saturday afternoon at a high school wrestling tournament that ended up teaching me one of life’s greatest lessons the hard way. Looking back almost a year and a half later, I recognize that I have learned a lot about myself, and about the severity of often-overlooked brain injuries. I hope one day I am able to look back at this experience with enough accumulated knowledge to help me look out for myself and others who are going through similar experiences.

During the second match of my first and last official wrestling tournament, I was pulled over my opponent’s shoulder and slammed onto the mat head-first. I can remember feeling an odd sense of pain behind my eyes and yelled out “my head!” When this happened the referee and my coach came over to see if I was all right, as I had trouble opening my eyes and standing up because I was feeling dizzy and nauseous. The two of them thought I was okay because the fall didn’t look out of the ordinary and I had not lost consciousness. My peers and coaches encouraged me to continue on with the second match and onto another one after that. Although I mentioned how I didn’t think I should keep wrestling, my desire to succeed seemed more important than the pain I was feeling at the time. I can remember feeling extreme pressure inside my skull and how all I wanted to do was sleep.

Up until I had landed on my head during my first wrestling tournament, I had had no knowledge of what a concussion really was or the dangerous signs people need to look out for. Throughout my short lifetime, I have participated and competed in many different types of sports, so the feeling of extreme exhaustion was not unusual for me. On the night of the tournament, I honoured previous commitments by spending the night babysitting, which I found to be unusually frustrating and confusing. The couple I was babysitting for could tell something was wrong with me and ended up calling my parents a few days later to see if everything was okay.

On the Monday back at school I went on a field trip with the Social Justice Committee that I had very much been looking forward to. Despite how important the trip was to me, I cannot remember a single thing that happened, except for the fact that the day ended with me getting sick in the washroom. After the trip, I returned back to school just in time for my wrestling practise. During practise, I was not able to prevent myself from falling asleep so my coaches sent me home thinking I was extremely overtired. On my second day back at school after the tournament weekend, I was even more confused and unable to remember where my classes were. After being told to call my mom, she picked me up from school and took me to see a doctor that one of her friends had recommended. The doctor informed us that landing on my head during the wrestling match had left me with a serious concussion that could take many months to heal.

After seeing the doctor, I was no longer allowed to watch TV, go to school, listen to music, spend a lot of time alone, sleep for long periods of time, read, use my cell phone, go on the computer, work out, or go out with any of my friends. This was extremely frustrating for me during the times when I was able to process that everything in my life had been taken away, at least until most of my symptoms had subsided. My doctor and parents were trying to make my daily life as simple as possible in order to allow my brain to heal. It was not until I started to break out of the daze I was in that I started to feel angry and hurt about not being able to live the way I used to. I felt really alone, anxious and depressed because I could not do all of the things my friends were doing during senior year. Living in my house with two active younger siblings was also really hard for me because I was always jealous that they were able to continue on with their many sports and were able to live independently.

There were times when I would understand and agree with what my doctor had to say, but other times I would be in complete denial that anything was wrong and would try to get away with things such as going out for runs. I only ended up going on a few runs though, because after each one I would get sick and have really bad migraines. Many months after the injury, I still cannot find a way to sort out and describe everything that happened because all of my memories seem like blurry pieces of information. I sometimes get choked up and stressed out by the fact that I cannot remember so much of the last year, such as my 18th birthday, and I often wonder how this all could have been avoided. I think about how, if I had been taken out of the tournament immediately after I hit my head and not continued on to another opponent, everything could have turned out differently. Since my injury, I have learned that once you have a concussion, your brain is even more sensitive and prone to further damage. It bothers me to think that I might not have had to sit on the sidelines of my life for a year if someone at the tournament had known the repercussions of undetected brain injuries.

It is a fact that people who have had concussions suffer from not having control over their emotions. While I was off school I had frequent mood changes that often frustrated the people around me. When these people became angry at me for my emotions, they didn’t realize that I was already hurting and feeling ten times more frustrated than they were. Not being able to explain, control, or even understand why I was feeling and acting the way I was, was confusing and alienating. I felt as though no one was really able to understand what I was going through, so eventually I gave up on trying to maintain relationships with some of my friends. Many of my friends couldn’t understand that even though I looked okay, I still couldn’t go out and do things the way I used to until all of my symptoms had gone away. There were times when my friends, out of frustration, would say to me that I seemed fine so I should stop looking for an easy way out of school work. This continues to anger me because I may have seemed okay, but I was not getting an easy way out of anything. My concussion set me back a year, causing me to miss my high school graduation with all of my friends and classmates—a moment I will never get to relive. I realize now that my friends cannot be blamed for not understanding my situation, because they were never given any information about serious concussions. All throughout my years of playing sports and schooling, I never knew how important it really was to protect your head and to step in and pull someone out of the situation immediately after they hit their head—winning or not. I feel strongly that it is highly important for parents, athletes, teachers, spectators, and especially coaches to learn more about brain injuries and the consequences for failing to recognize the seriousness of hitting one’s head.

Today I appreciate just how lucky I was to have had the doctor I did throughout this entire ordeal. He is the only person who took the time to tell me over and over again that he understood, I was going to be okay, and what I was going through happened to others. I found great comfort in his understanding and reasoning, despite the fact that on some days it was the last thing I wanted to hear about. The most important thing that he taught me is something that will stick with me forever: A brain injury is just like any other injury; you just cannot see the cast and bandages. Your brain needs the same type of nurturing and care as a broken arm or leg. You cannot fully immobilize your brain, but you have to find a way to allow it rest and relax until it is healed. This process was difficult for me to master and I wish I had done a better job of it a year ago.

Although I ended up winning the wrestling match that gave me my concussion, I ultimately ended up losing. I hope the idea of never being able to play again is enough motivation for athletes to let themselves lose a game in order to sit out and recover correctly so that they are able to continue on with all aspects of their lives.