Who am I if not an athlete?

By Emilie Woehrlé

I was eight when my Mom first told me she had signed me up to try the sport of ringette. Prior to that, I had tried softball, piano, skiing and snowboarding, swimming, done jazz and hip-hop dancing, gymnastics, soccer and many other activities. I can remember clearly the first day at the rink. My Mom had dressed me at home, in an assortment of hand-me-down hockey and ringette equipment – and I’m pretty sure, a bike helmet. Even my skates were on with skate guards, as I sat sweating in the back of our mini-van, thinking “what in the world did my Mom sign me up for now”. Did I mention my stick? For those of you who don’t know ringette, you use a straight wooden stick with a plastic tip on the end. The one I had, was a hockey stick with the blade cut off…I kid you not. We get to the rink and I went waddling into the arena, pulling on my Mom’s pant leg and begging her to take me home. I was causing a scene as all the other girls were flying around the ice, and I knew I was going to topple over like Bambi the second I stepped on the ice. Before I knew what was happening, my Mom grabbed me by the shoulder pads and plopped me on the ice. At this point, I knew there was no turning back. It wasn’t until a friend of mine from Girl Guides said “Hey Em, get out here” that I decided to take my first stride, and I haven’t looked back since.

 

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I played ringette competitively for 10 years for the Mississauga Mustangs. My position was forward, as I had to be in the middle of the action and fighting for the ring at all times. At the age of 12, my coach gave me the nickname Taz, a shortform for Tasmanian Devil from the Looney Tunes as I was quick, aggressive, feisty, yet tactical. I was a smart player and could always see the full ice and determine the best pass to make. I always gave it everything I had, and left it all on the ice – every single time. In my later years, I was chosen to be assistant captain and then captain for 3 consecutive years. I found myself comfortable in a leadership role, and feel I set a good positive example for my teammates. We practiced every week, and played games every weekend. To say there was nowhere I would rather be than on the ice, was an understatement. I was fully myself on the ice.

 

As an aggressive go-getter player who weighed 115lbs and measured 5’1 at the time, I took my share of knock downs. Some of the parents referred to me as a bungie cord – when I fell, I would bounce right back up. And that’s what I did well, at least most of the time. My first concussion was in 2010. I was circling around the net with the ring, and a player on the opposing team cross-checked me into the net, and my head hit the goal post. I fell to the ground, and this time I stayed down. Our trainer ran out onto the ice, and I remember feeling quite disoriented. I couldn’t remember what had happened, but the trainer had told me I hit my head. I felt suddenly weak and nauseous and just wanted to get off the ice and out of the spotlight of all the glaring parents and fans. She brought me to the dressing room, and asked me to rate my symptoms on a scale - foreign to me at the time, the SCAT form. At halftime, all the players flooded into the room, alongside the coaches wondering if I could get back on the ice, and my parents worrying about how I was. I remember trying to rationalize that the only reason my head hurt was because I hit it, just like if I had hit my arm – and insisting that I was fine. The trainer recommended I stay off the ice for the rest of the game, which was the right decision at the time. Being an athlete however, it angered me to have to sit on the bench while the rest of the team continued to play. This is where I realized how “silent” this injury was. No one could see it, but I was hurting. My family physician suggested a week off practices and games (which felt like an eternity as an athlete). I vividly remember walking down my high school hallway and finding the lights excruciatingly bright. After a week of decreased screen time, no exercise, lots of rest and multiple ibuprofens, I was back on the ice.

 

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In the following years, I struggled with numerous concussions, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. On one occasion, I was cross checked from behind (did I mention ringette is non-contact?) and flew head first into the boards. I was carried off the ice on a stretcher and brought to the nearest hospital. Concussion. On another occasion, I was driving with a friend and he stopped abruptly and my head swung forwards and backwards. Concussion. Another time while teaching swimming lessons, I had a preschool student come down the slide and accidentally give me a kick to the head. Concussion. I had another collision on the ice, that seemed like any other. Concussion. I was walking up the stairs in my student home and my friend jumped out and scared me, causing me to hit my head into the door. Concussion. I think you get the point. Some of these events I shared with my parents, friends, doctors and others I kept to myself. It was obvious that I was becoming more prone to this mild traumatic brain injury. Yet, I continued to play.

 

Grade 12 was a terrifying year for me, as I wanted so desperately to get accepted to Western’s Kinesiology program. My career goal was to become a physiotherapist, and the only place I wanted to attend was Western. My decision to pursue Western was also largely influenced by the fact that they had a successful Varsity Ringette team. The day of my acceptance was one of the greatest moments of my life. I tried out for Western’s ringette team, and was selected there as well. I was a Varsity athlete, at a well-known highly-educational establishment. Life couldn’t get much better!

 

To top it off, the ringette team was great, the players were fun yet motivated, and the coaches pushed us hard. We played our first game in Dorchester, and I remember feeling overwhelmingly proud of myself. I was wearing the Western jersey, and my parents were there to cheer me on. I felt powerful, playing my favourite sport and representing my school. Little did I know; it was going to be my last game. The following week during practice, we were doing one-on-one drills and I was up against a defender. I did my best to push her off, but I ended up getting knocked down and my head made contact with the ice. Immediately I shot back up, and headed to the back of the line. I remember seeing my coach skating over out of the corner of my eye, and I was dreading the question he was about to ask. Before he could say anything, I blurted “I’m fine”, but that wasn’t enough for him. I told him I had been concussed several times before, and I knew the symptoms like the back of my hand. I convinced myself that it wasn’t another concussion so I continued to participate for the rest of the practice.  The coach insisted I make an appointment with a physician, just in case. I eventually gave in and scheduled an appointment with Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic on-campus. Two days prior to the appointment, I was still asymptomatic and had to take an elevator in a building. You know the feeling of your stomach dropping on a roller-coaster, or sometimes in a tall story building elevator? Well, I felt that but much worse. I felt like my head was swollen up like a balloon, I was losing my balance and suddenly wanted to vomit. This is when I knew that something else was going on and I broke down crying because I knew what was coming next.

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I first met with the Sport Medicine physician at Fowler Kennedy in October. We had discussed the specifics of the fall, symptoms I had been having, as well as (yup) my concussion history. It didn’t take much time for her to officially diagnose me with a concussion. She recommended one week off of classes and ringette, and that we would reconvene in a week’s time. At the time, my primary concern was not getting back on the ice, because I had been down this road before. I knew that after a week I would go back and see the doctor, and she would clear me to return to play. What was really bothering me, was taking the time off school. It was my first year of university, and being a week behind on lectures and readings felt like 3 months in high school time. I put an immense amount of pressure on myself to begin with, and not being able to keep up with the work while my roommate, classmates and floormates did, was disconcerting. I sat in my dorm in the dark, and only left to get food. First year parties and events were happening around me, yet I found myself isolated and alone. “Are you sure it’s okay if we go?”, is what they all asked me. “Of course” I would say, but truly, I did not want to be left alone. A week went by and I was ready as ever to return to school and ringette. The doctor asked me how I’d been, I chose to be honest and admit that I still had sensitivity to light, pressure in my head, feelings of anxiety and difficulty sleeping. She decided that another week off is what I needed to ensure I was completely recovered. Reluctantly, I agreed – she knew best I suppose. I decided to go back home for the week, to combat the feelings of missing out. That week was filled with feelings of loneliness, popping ibuprofens, sharp headaches and dark rooms. I was counting down the days until I could go back to Western. I just wanted to have the “normal” student experience. At the end of the week I headed back up to London. Feeling optimistic, I met with my physician. We had our regular conversation about my progress, and I told her I was still slightly symptomatic, but put emphasis on how I was feeling so much better. She looked at me, and I was mortified because the moment I had been dreading, and pretending would never occur, was about to happen. “Emilie, I think it would be best if you did not return to school for the remainder of the semester. I also think that it would be a good idea for you to quit ringette for good”. Those words still haunt me to this day. Immediately, I burst out crying. How could this possibly be happening? My plan of the perfect university experience crumbled before my eyes. The worst part was that she looked at me and said “I know how you must feel….”. and I don’t remember the rest of the sentence because of how offended I was that she thought she could possibly relate to what I was feeling. She did not know, and she had no right to pretend like she understood. With tear-filled eyes, we agreed I would follow up with her in January. I tried calling my Mom. No answer. My Dad. No answer. I remember curling up on the side of the building, and bawling my eyes out. I had never felt so lost and alone in my entire life.

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My therapy team included chiropractors, physiotherapists, kinesiologists and physicians. We worked on balance, reading, memory, and emotional control. It was a long few months. I would not have made it through without the support of my family and my friends. I remember catching my Mom crying because she felt sorry for me, and it absolutely broke my heart. She couldn’t relate, but she was there for every second of my struggle. She held me when I cried, read for me when I couldn’t, drove me to my appointments, and promised me I would come out stronger than ever. And I did. In January, I returned to Western to complete my first official semester of university and completed it very successfully. I was welcomed back with open arms, and am eternally blessed for all the friends that helped me re-integrate back into student life.

 

Fast forward to today. I’ve battled with anxiety and depression from my concussions. I’ve questioned who I was, if not a ringette athlete. I have struggled to find other hobbies that made me feel the way that ringette made me feel. I sometimes felt completely lost and alone. I continue to suffer from chronic tension headaches and migraines. But I made it. And I know that at the time your life changes, it feels completely impossible to surpass, but you do, and you come out of it a better and stronger version of yourself.

 

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Personally, one of the ways that I found helped me accept my plight was to give back to others in similar circumstances. In my third year of university, I was the student athletic therapist for the Varsity women’s hockey team and was their first medical response team in case of injury. I knew how to relate to an injured athlete, as an athlete – and I think it made me a better student therapist. Secondly, I got involved in concussion research in the Neurovascular Research Laboratory at Western. I was in contact with adolescents who had been diagnosed with sport-related concussions and attempted to understand the physiological changes that occur in the body with this injury. I was able to spend one-on-one time with them, tell them my story, and let them open up to me about theirs. Making someone else’s negative experience more tolerable helped me overcome more fully my own anguish.

 

Although writing my story was harder than I imagined it could be even after 5 years, it was a therapeutic undertaking for me and others. It is important to see it as a story of success, of growth, change, and of strength, as opposed to an atrocity or a tragedy. It is important for young and older adults, to see that they there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel and that the struggle is part of the journey. I hope that my story can provide a sense of comfort to others who are going through concussion recovery. There is life after these experiences and while you may have to make changes in your life, there are other equally rewarding experiences that await.

Jeff Brooks