20-year-old male hockey player

I have been playing hockey since I was four years old. One thing has always been consistent for both me and my fellow players: the basic idea of playing through pain. As hockey players, we all learn at a young age that we have to be able to take the bumps when they come or else we won’t last very long in the game. This ideology is an awesome metaphor for life in general because we learn to push through the hard times. The only problem is, pushing through head pain and acting like it isn’t there doesn’t make you stronger — it gradually breaks you down.

I’ve had some random injuries in my life that, in some instances, have ended seasons for me. I got used to avoiding doctors whenever possible because they were frequently the bearers of bad news. This meant that I never once went to a doctor when I had head pains, particularly this season. In fact, the doctor had to contact me this last time just to ensure I would go for my appointment.

I used to play a fairly physical game and, though that certainly wasn’t the only aspect of my game, I really loved contact. When I was in Grades 8 and 9, I was one of the smallest players and, as such, wanted to prove myself by always going after the biggest guy on the other team. Then, as I grew into one of the bigger guys, the physical aspect of my game became more intense.

In November of 2009, a team trainer asked me if I had ever had a concussion (perhaps suspecting as much). I told him that I had never been diagnosed with one by a physician, so no. Later that same month, my team was playing an away game and I was playing very well (probably the best I had since I returning from wrist surgery six games prior). The third period was getting pretty physical and it was a tight game. One of the other team’s better defensemen and I had been at each other most of the night, but we were both concerned about the score so it was nothing more than chirping and hitting. He ran me once when I was getting a pass on the boards in my zone, but it didn’t work out — all that ensued was more chirping. The next time the puck went to him on the point, I ran him and he got his elbow up enough to give me a little daze. I didn’t even think twice about that because it happened all the time. The puck was fired down the ice and I beat him back to his zone to pick up it up. With the puck on the boards, he hit me hard enough from behind that my head bounced off the glass and the next thing I remember was both of us with our helmets off and a fight. I was aware of the time remaining in the game and the score, and also realized right away that this was not the time to be fighting. I tried just holding on to bring the linesmen in so that we wouldn’t get fighting majors, but that was a bad idea. My opponent pulled up on my leg and I fell back and I hit my head on the ice, hard.

More embarrassed by my stupid actions than anything, I left the ice to go get changed. I had a bad headache but was sure it was nothing and was much more concerned about what my coaches would say to me when they came in — they wouldn’t be happy that their Captain was in the dressing room instead of helping the team get a much needed goal at the end of the game. I did a concussion test with the doctor that was at the game and told her I was fine and that all I wanted was some food. I went home and thought that, with a good sleep, I’d be all set for class the next morning.

The next day I had a really hard time concentrating in class but I didn’t think anything of it because that had been par for the course for most of this year (a much different experience than had been the case in previous years). I got a call after class from my manager saying that Dr. Echlin wanted to see me; I told him I was fine. Dr. Echlin insisted that I come in just so that I could prove to him that I was perfectly fine. I was having a real problem trying to read my work off of my computer screen so I agreed to go — getting out of the library and taking a drive could only do me well, right? Dr. Echlin told me that I was concussed and that he could not clear me to play until everything cleared up. I can’t say that I was surprised, but I was disappointed for sure!

After going through and discussing some of the games that I had played before I saw a doctor, we figured that, before this last one, I had probably had at least two or three concussions since the start of September. Stacking the concussions just made it harder and harder to ignore and hide the symptoms, and this one tipped the scale for sure.

For the next month and a half, I could hardly read. If I did an hour of work, I’d have to take a two-hour nap. Walking to class began to get difficult because of the head rushes. I went from being a hard-working student and athlete to someone that couldn’t be either. Everyone related to hockey wanted to know when I was coming back; I couldn’t give them a straight answer because I didn’t know. I had to postpone all of my Christmas exams, which caused me further stress. My parents weren’t worried about me playing hockey again (though they would have loved to see me well enough to get back on the ice); they were more worried about school and my future. They told me that I had my whole life to live and that I only had one brain — and not to mess it up! I trusted them and agreed, but I was determined to turn things around for myself. I would have a couple of good days in a row and be able to do work and maybe a little bit of exercise and then I would call my coach and tell him I was coming back — thinking that if I believed I was going back right away, I could make myself get better. It took until the middle of January before I realized that my season was over. Admitting defeat is tough and I hated the fact that I had promised so many people that I would get back on the ice but I wasn’t going to be able to pull through on that promise. I felt guilty, frustrated and, honestly, devastated by all that had happened.

Concussions are an odd injury. Through all my wrist surgeries, no one ever questioned if I could play again because they could see the cast or the fresh scars and realize that I wasn’t ready yet. With a concussion, only a few people like my parents or girlfriend could tell that something was off when they were talking to me — anyone who didn’t know me as well as they did had no idea that I had a brain injury. No one can see a concussion when they look at you so you have the appearance of being fine. Most people don’t understand concussions and it is very hard to get people to buy into the fact that there is something actually wrong.

It has been more than five months since my last concussion and my symptoms are starting to get better. Reading and memorization were a real problem for quite a while but now things are getting a lot easier. I am down to four classes at university in hopes of keeping my marks close to where they used to be. The physical change was huge after the concussion, as I lost 25 lbs fairly quickly because I was unable to exercise or train. This experience taught me a lot: I am NOT invincible …  and my brain is something very worth protecting.