By Jenna Schulz
September 2017 was going to be the start of an amazing journey. I started a new program and could not contain my excitement to work towards my PhD in Rehabilitation Sciences and a Master of Physical Therapy degree over the next 5 years at Western. Being heavily involved in sport since I was a kid, I knew that I had finally found my calling – to influence the field through both research and clinical practice.
I was off to a great start – I had just recovered from what felt like a never-ending injury streak. I had developed a great routine of proper exercise, nutrition and sleep to fuel my body and brain, and I was finally able to return to playing sports, which I have considered my number one stress reliever since I was a kid. I felt unstoppable.
I had joined a few intramural teams – a serious broken bone ended my competitive sports career back in high school, but that had never stopped me from getting out on the ice, the field or the court to escape reality for even just an hour. I was playing intramural flag football, and was on defense. With full force, I collided with my own teammate as we followed our opponents in coverage. We went knee on knee and my head (I think) hit his shoulder, then I hit the ground hard. My initial thoughts were “Oh God not another injury” as I laid on the ground. My teammates came over, and my one teammate and lab mate (who specializes in concussion research) asked me if I hit my head. My knee jerk reaction was to say no, because there was no way I could have gotten a concussion from an intramural sport, let alone from colliding with my own teammate. I walked myself off the field, but as I sat on the sideline, I realized that both my knee and my head were not getting any better.
My friend drove me to the hospital to get my knee checked out. I remember sitting in the car, both my knee and head throbbing, and I was experiencing extreme dizziness and nausea. When we got to the hospital and up to the triage desk, they asked me what I was getting checked out. I told them about my collision, and I said my knee, but I also told them my head hurt too. They told me “sorry, we can only focus on one issue at a time” so I stuck with my knee. The X-ray came back clean, so they gave me some crutches and sent me home. All I wanted to do was sleep, but I was up all night in pain… looking back now the signs were obvious.
I am lucky that my lab works closely with Fowler Kennedy Sports Medicine Clinic, one of the best in the world, so the next day I went to the acute care clinic. I was able to get a definitive diagnosis for my knee (which put me on crutches for a few weeks and ended my intramural season), and I booked a physio appointment for the following week. I still didn’t speak up about my head, because I figured I was just exhausted from the lack of sleep I got the night before, and chalked up my headache, fogginess and lack of ability to focus to the fatigue.
The next day I sat down to try and study for an upcoming exam, and I just couldn’t do it. I felt so disoriented and confused, and I was in such a haze. Again, in full denial, I tried to push through. After another awful night’s sleep, I finally gave in to what I had known the second I collided with my teammate; I had a concussion. I felt embarrassed and in disbelief – how did I not sustain a concussion from years of rugby tackles and pucks to the head in hockey, but now received one from a single silly collision? I reached out to someone I trusted, who also is well-researched in the area, and I was told I had no choice but to go seek help, despite me continuously saying “I’m fine”. The following week when I went in for my physio appointment for my knee, I opened up about my head. I immediately saw one of the sport medicine doctors, who ran me through all of the traditional tests (which coming from a lab that partially specialized in concussion research and from clinical volunteering, I was no stranger to). Even though I knew my SCAT score was high, and I knew that all the symptoms were pointing towards it, hearing the doctor say “you have a concussion Jenna” was devastating. I had my first big conference coming up in just over a week, and I was flying out to Winnipeg for it. Against everyone’s recommendations, I decided to still attend and insisted “I’m fine” but ended up spending most of the conference inside my hotel room.
The months following were challenging – I was hoping to be back to business two weeks post-concussion. I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want to “worry them”, and I thought it was not something that was going to last long. But as each week passed, I was barely seeing progress. I had to push all of my exams back, could barely last a couple hours in my lab without flare-ups, I was off work and I couldn’t exercise because of both my knee and how symptom-stimulating the gym environment was. But this entire time, I pushed through. I was lying to myself and to everyone else by saying “I’m fine”, desperately trying to return to normal. It wasn’t until Christmas break that I finally started to feel more like my normal self. My knee had healed enough for me to start exercising again, I was able to work, and I was starting to get back into my routine.
At the start of 2018, I was determined. Despite still feeling in a slight fog, I continued to go on like it was nothing. I was gearing up to start a new project and my Comprehensive Exams, so I didn’t want anything to get in my way. I got the clearance to finally play sports again (albeit non-contact), so once again I signed up for intramurals. Three weeks into January, I was playing goalie during intramural handball. Someone on the other team ran into me, side swiping me in the head with their arm. I was in instant pain but brushed it off. The headache didn’t go away, so I popped an Advil and proceeded to play basketball. That was one of the silliest decisions I could have made, especially with my history and knowledge in the field, and I am lucky that I didn’t get another blow to the head. After a few days of trying to ignore it, and many “I’m fine’s” later, I once again turned to my trusted sources. I was told to go get it checked out, so I went back to the doctor and…another SCAT, another concussion.
This one was particularly difficult – and a prime example of how each concussion is different. The first concussion I had struggled with the physical aspect; the fogginess, haziness and difficulty concentrating. But this one took an emotional toll on me. Physically I healed much faster with this one, within about a month the headaches subsided. But the emotional side effects lasted much longer. I had put myself under immense stress and pressure to complete this project as well as pass my comps, but the concussion exacerbated my mental state. I had heightened anxiety, moments of depression, large amounts of self-doubt, mood swings, and even a few panic attacks. I was frustrated, because I felt physically normal, but emotionally I was drained. However, I suppressed these feelings and continued on insisting that “I’m fine”. I finally came to the realization that I wasn’t fine, and that that was okay.
I am beyond lucky to be surrounded by health care professionals, colleagues, family and friends who have been nothing but supportive of me. I am eternally grateful for those who advocated for me when I wouldn’t; who spoke up for me when I was silent; who pushed me to seek help when I was being stubborn; who reminded me how important my brain is when I tried to brush it off; and who had my best interest in mind when I didn’t. Without them, I would not be where I am today. I passed my comps, finished that project, and I’m now working on some new, exciting research towards my PhD. I am eager to start Physiotherapy school in about a year and a half, and to apply my experiences to clinical practice. I have re-established a slightly modified daily routine, adding more time to take breaks and more time for myself. But most importantly, I am healthy; both physically and mentally. In a weird way, my concussions taught me a lot. I’ve learned that I need to listen to my body, and especially my brain because you only get one. I’ve learned new coping strategies to deal with stress and anxiety. I’ve learned that it’s okay to not be okay, and that it’s okay to ask for and lean on others for help and support. And I’ve learned that sometimes being the hero means admitting when you’re hurting, both physically and mentally, not trying to push through by saying “I’m fine”.
As a future clinician, my experiences have been invaluable. My hopes and goals are to impact and improve the lives of many patients, much like mine has been changed for the better. As much as I struggled over the past year, I also came out on top. Not every day is perfect, and there are many days where I still struggle, but looking back I am proud at the progress I’ve made. No, this was not how I had pictured my journey to start, but I am excited to see what the future has in store for me, and I am ready to face every challenge.