23-year-old female elite cyclist

In the summer of 2009 I was injured in a crash in a cycling race in Canada. I do not remember the crash, or about five to ten minutes after it, although I am told that I was talking the whole time (but repeating myself over and over and not lucid). The last thing I remember before the crash was climbing a hill in the race. The next thing I remember is climbing into the ambulance.

Once I arrived at the hospital, which took approximately 30 minutes by ambulance, I was rushed into a private room where I was attended to by nurses and a doctor. The doctor found that I had injured my shoulder and needed stitches for a laceration to my head. The doctor directed the nurses to clean up and cover my wounds. I suggested the possibility that I may have had a concussion, but he was not convinced this was the case. He instructed me to go home and be sure to take it easy, and if I had any vomiting or blacking-out that I should come back to the hospital immediately.

That night I moved into the [team masseuse’s room] and her job became to take care of me. I still wanted to be part of the team and, despite a bit of neck pain and being really tired, I didn’t think anything was seriously wrong, so I continued to follow the team as they raced, which meant long days and early mornings. As the days went by it became more obvious that something was very wrong. I was able to sleep for many hours multiple times during the day on top of my usual evening sleeps, and was still experiencing headaches, nausea, and significant neck pain.

I finally flew back to Ontario, as planned, four days later, where I met my parents who had set up an appointment with my family doctor. Since it was summertime, many doctors were away; this increased the wait time for appointments and further complicated matters. I ended up seeing two family doctors and three sport medicine doctors, without anyone really knowing what to do except prescribe rest.

In the cycling world, many people had heard about my crash, and one person I remember specifically said, “You’re lucky it was just a concussion”! To this day I think of that comment and it reminds me how little is understood about this injury. Within two weeks of the crash, fellow cyclists started to question my injury, as most think of a concussion as a 24-hour to one-week-long injury. Many doubted that I was actually still injured. Having a concussion is an invisible injury. If nobody asks how you’re feeling, it’s very hard for them to see that anything is wrong. I believe it was only when I had to give up my spot on the Pan American Championship team that others realized that I really couldn’t ride and that I was still seriously injured.

The next few months were probably the hardest for me: not knowing how long the recovery would take, having others doubt what I was going through, and me not truly understanding what I was dealing with.
When I first got injured, friends noticed how upset I was and suggested I contact a sport psychologist. Though I was apprehensive, I was open to any option that might help; I decided to contact a local sport psychologist. This was perhaps one of the best things I ever did. Despite not having any specific background in concussions, his support was tremendously helpful. He helped me to take everything one step at a time, to continue to look at my past accomplishments, and to take baby steps towards small goals. He taught me to stay relaxed by using mindful meditation and creating daily logs of my recovery progress.

After seeing the psychologist, I came into contact with Dr. Echlin, who diagnosed me with post-concussion syndrome and soon helped to arrange an appointment for me to visit Dr. Johnson in Toronto. More importantly, Dr. Echlin helped me to contact other athletes who have been through serious concussions and successfully re-entered their competitive sport.

Over ten months later, I am still dealing with my head injury on a daily basis. I have learned many of the triggers of my headaches, and how to best avoid them. I still get headaches rather frequently, and am only able to exercise at low intensities every few days. However, when I look back on where I was last June, I see that I have improved.

From all that I have learned, I think the most useful thing for me was talking to others who had been through serious long-term concussions. There is a lot of cynicism from the public about post-concussion syndrome, and many moments it even caused me to doubt myself. However, it is a real condition that mostly just takes time and “taking it easy” to heal. Although ten months can seem like forever, I am confident that I am almost healed. Every week I feel that I can add a bit more to my life. One of the more positive results of this injury is that through this whole process I decided to quit my job and go back to school to pursue a master’s degree in a field I have been fascinated with my whole life: sport psychology.