Emma | Ohio
Photo Credit: Erik Alberg
When Emma, a 21-year-old aspiring professional dancer from Ohio, hit her head doing a backbend in mid-July 2018, she never suspected that she’d suffered a concussion. A dance major and dean’s list student at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, she had been enjoying summer break before a busy junior year. “I had concussions before—from a car accident, from playing softball, and even after a mountain biking mishap—but none of them affected me the way this one did,” she explains.
Returning to Hope College a few weeks later, Emma resumed her demanding schedule of academic and dance classes, initially unaware of the lingering symptoms from the concussion she had sustained. Almost immediately, she started having unexplained dizzy spells, muscle tremors, episodes of complete exhaustion, and panic attacks. She was also anxious and irritable, overwhelmed by crowds, and struggling to concentrate. “A homework assignment that would usually take only 20 minutes would take an hour to complete,” she recalls. Despite these challenges, she was determined to finish the fall semester. It wasn’t until she went home to Ohio for winter break, after completing her fall semester, that she started searching for an answer to her symptoms.
Aware of Emma’s physical issues, and knowing the family’s history of epilepsy, her parents were extremely concerned. They also noticed that she was unusually emotional, anxious, and irritable—signs that Emma herself did not recognize. “I had all these symptoms, but I was just living my life as usual,” she notes.
Emma later learned that concussion symptoms can be subtle and may not show up immediately after an injury. “A full school schedule, especially my cardio training and dance classes, triggered my symptoms,” she says.
Searching for a Diagnosis
While thinking about what the next steps should be, Emma’s father, who is a fan of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., thought immediately of visiting Michael “Micky” Collins, PhD, clinical and executive director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion program, who treated Dale’s concussions previously. “My dad connected the concussion symptoms Earnhardt Jr. wrote about in his book with what was happening to me,” she explains. “He suggested that we contact Dr. Collins.”
In January 2019, Emma met with Dr. Collins and his team of specialists for a comprehensive concussion assessment. “At that point, I wasn’t sure I would ever get better,” she says.
“After lots of tests to figure out what triggered my symptoms, Dr. Collins said, ‘Yes, you have a concussion. And yes, we have the tools to fix it.’ Hearing that ‘yes’ meant the world to me,” recalls Emma.
Dr. Collins and his team of specialists customized a six-week treatment plan designed to get Emma back to dancing, including physical exertion and vestibular rehabilitation therapies to treat her injured brain. “Since they knew what exercises triggered my symptoms, those triggers were incorporated into my therapy to allow my brain to become desensitized to them,” she explains.
Determined to get back to her normal dancer life, Emma was committed to her rehabilitation. Three times a week, Emma did cardio exercises with different turns and jumps added by her therapists to trigger dizziness. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my therapist mixed it up with abdominal exercises that included mountain climbers and planks with head rotations,” she explains. She also did a series of exercises twice daily to help reduce dizziness, unbalance, and other concussion-related issues.
With plans of a dance internship in New York City during the fall 2019 semester, Emma and her therapy team knew she had to overcome her overwhelming anxiety of being in large crowds. “By putting myself into those places, again and again, I was able to become desensitized,” she explains.
By late February, just six weeks after her initial visit with Dr. Collins, Emma tested out of all her therapies and stopped the medicines she’d been taking.
In July 2019, Emma completed an intensive, three-week professional dance training program in Maine. In August, she moved to New York City for a semester-long dance internship and classes with the Dance Lab New York and Paul Taylor Dance Company. “I’m confident that I can do this internship without worrying about my concussion symptoms coming back,” she says.
Emma shared that fulfilling this long-held dream is due in large part to the care she received from Dr. Collins and her therapists at UPMC. “They were all amazing,” she adds. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to surround me.”
Emma intends to keep up a regular exercise routine, including dance and cross-training, because “it helps keep my brain clear and focused. With the lessons I’ve learned during this process— about myself, self-care, and asking others for help when I need it— I’m ready to graduate and enter the real world.”