Emily | Charlotte, NC
“I just wanted to run out the door and go play with the neighbor kids,” recalls Emily, when asked what she missed most during her concussion.
In March of 2016, Emily was doing just that. During a game of tag, she climbed a tree but fell — 15 to 20 feet — on her head. Although she seemingly walked away from the fall unscathed and was diagnosed “only with a mild concussion” at a local Emergency Room. Five days later, the painful headaches began to plague the then 10-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina.
Emily’s parents, Elise and Jaime, sought help from another local physician. He administered the ImPACT® test, which showed Emily was struggling with her brain processing speed, reaction time, and verbal and visual memory.
“He basically put Emily, all of us, in lock down mode,” says Elise. “That was the solution.”
“She [Emily] wasn’t supposed to do anything. Just rest,” adds Jaime. “And take her headache medicine.”
Emily began to experience even more concussion symptoms, including:
- Convergence, and other vision problems, especially visual snow (seeing tiny dots in the visual field)
- Difficulty with balance
- Jaw pain
Emily and her parents agree, though — her worst symptom was depression. From March to June, she progressively became more depressed.
“The emotional trauma of not being able to do anything, being on all those restrictions, and the inactivity caused Emily to gain weight,” says Elise. “This made her very uncomfortable with her body. All of this together took a huge, scary toll.
“My daughter had horrible thoughts running through her head,” she continues. “I want other parents to know that we had to lock up our knives. You don’t think a concussion could do this to a young child, to anyone, but it can.”
The family pushed through this tough period together, finding Emily help to deal with her emotional instability. She was put on mood-stabilizing medications.
“Even though she was still experiencing many of her symptoms, Emily took the ImPACT test again in June,” says Jaime. “Surprisingly, she passed – the physician said she did well and was recovered.”
A Second Concussion
Deemed concussion-free, Emily’s parents encouraged her to attend a summer camp in July, something she wouldn’t have been able to do months earlier.
“I remember feeling like that was a good test, to know for sure that she was alright,” says Elise. “When she had her concussion, she couldn’t make it through the day without taking a nap, but she did great at camp.”
As the family celebrated the success of the camp, bad luck struck again. They were involved in a car accident and Emily had been sitting on the side of the car that was hit.
“At first my head did not hurt; I was asleep in the car and woke up with a jolt. I thought I was okay, but five days later I had a blinding head ache,” says Emily. “I knew I did it again, that I had another concussion.”
Again, the family turned to and heeded the advice of the local physician. Emily returned to her restrictive schedule, which included not attending school.
“I didn’t think I would ever get better,” says Emily. “I was feeling despair.”
So was the family.
“Our home was a prison,” describes Jaime. “We have three daughters, and although only one was concussed, we all were impacted. We were all isolated.
“For me, one of the most painful things I saw was the day she could not remember how to spell her last name.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Referral
In November, Jaime was speaking to a colleague about Emily’s concussion, sharing just how hopeless his family was feeling. That colleague offered to put Jaime and Emily in touch with someone else going through the same thing.
“When Dale [Earnhardt Jr.] called our home, well, it made all the difference,” says Elise. “That touch point, hearing ‘that happened to me, too,’ it may seem insignificant to some, but it was so powerful.
“He [Dale] genuinely took Emily under his wing. That’s the type of person he is.”
Dale shared with the family his experience with concussion. He underwent treatment in 2012 and 2016 at UPMC in Pittsburgh, Pa.
At Dale’s recommendation, Emily and her parents traveled to meet with Micky Collins, PhD, clinical and executive director at the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, not long after that first call.
“He [Dr. Collins] told us Emily had five of the six different types of concussion,” Elise says. “We quickly understood we had a lot of work to do.”
Emily was prescribed exertional, vestibular, and ocular therapy, all of which her parents admit were hard to watch her do at first.
“The exercises that Dr. Collins prescribed, their main purpose is to bring out those concussion symptoms and then recover,” says Jaime. “It’s not fun seeing your child be sick or struggle.”
“I can remember stressing over how many things Emily had wrong with her,” adds Elise. “She had headaches; jaw pain; obviously, all the emotional issues going on.
“The one day I caught her left eye drifting off to the side. I couldn’t manage all these problems individually and had no idea what to do, or where to start,” she says. “And then I’m sitting there, with Dr. Collins. He’s giving us hope. He made us all so hopeful.”
Emily says she knew friends who had concussions before, but no one experienced the symptoms she had.
“I thought something must be wrong with me,” she says. “The first time I met Dr. Collins, he told me I’d get better. He explained what was broken and how we were going to fix it. He told me I would need to work and get stronger.”
From her parents’ point of view, Emily began to emotionally improve almost immediately. When the family returned to Pittsburgh in January, Dr. Collins agreed Emily was improving but cautioned everyone that she could be doing even better.
“We were still being a bit overprotective,” says Jaime. “Emily was doing the exercises she was prescribed, but we were still taking it too easy, not letting her take risks.
“Risks being a quick trip to Target, going out to eat. Dr. Collins explained we needed to invest in his plan fully. It’s what we needed to hear.”
Six weeks later, Emily returned for a follow up appointment and this time, she received Dr. Collins’ approval, and so did Mom and Dad.
“The protocol, the restrictive plan we were following in Charlotte – Emily wasn’t really living her life,” says Elise. “Dr. Collins’ plan? It was all about living, so that’s what we did.”
Nearly one year later, Emily is recovered from her concussion and she wants to help others like Dale helped her. In fact, she’s mentoring a 9-year-old girl in Virginia who is suffering from her third concussion.
“We are good friends. We talk about things that we both experienced during our concussion,” says Emily, “just like Dale did with me.”
“That’s what’s remarkable to me,” adds Elise. “This is starting to become a passion for Emily.
“Her mental health is strong. She successfully finished the school year. She’s running around with the neighbors.”
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