By Cassidy Nicholls (as told to Katherine Dolan)
For the last two years of my life, I have struggled more than I ever have.
Not a day has gone by, I have woken up feeling foggy with a headache. I can’t play sport’s, I can’t go to a movie theatre, I can’t go to a sporting event or even a concert. I can’t do any of those things because I am dealing with post-concussion syndrome.
Every day is a mix of dizziness, headaches, nausea and just not feeling 100%. I am sensitive to light, music, sound and irritated by the big things and the little things. At 23 years old, my life has come to a standstill, all because of a concussion.
It is very frustrating, to say the least.
I have been an athlete my whole life, it’s part of my identity, of who I am. But the one thing that has helped is to share my story of how it all happened, so instead of complaining about it, I can be part of the solution.
Growing up, I tried almost every sport from curling to soccer, basketball to volleyball and lacrosse. It wasn’t until I got into high school I fell in love with field hockey. I was identified in high school for Canada’s National Team and was flown out to Toronto to try out. It was at this camp I was recruited by a Canadian University and ended up signing up and playing with them for 5 years.
My first significant concussion came completely unrelated to sports. I was in the shower, fainted and was knocked out. It was in the first year of my University career so I missed the whole indoor hockey season in the spring as well I missed classes but I did recover and was cleared to play.
After that, I had two more minor ones and then the one in my final year of University that ended my career. I was the starting right defender for our team so I had three girls behind me, all eager to get my starting spot. It was during practice that one of my teammates accidentally hit me in the face with a stick.
I didn’t think anything of it at the time as it wasn’t that big of a hit and I didn’t really feel anything. We had two athletic therapists at the time who would normally flag any head trauma as per player protocol, but I didn’t get flagged as it was so insignificant. Or so I thought.
The next day, I started showing a lot of concussion symptoms but I still played a full game before seeing a doctor. I was the one who made the choice to play the game, which I know isn’t smart. I should have pulled myself.
After the game, I went to the team doctor and was diagnosed with a concussion. I missed half of our season after that.
Nearing the end of the season, I was cleared just in time for the last 3 games of the season, which was huge because we were heading into Provincial and National Finals. This was something that I had been working for, for a long time and I didn’t think I was in a position to come forward and say I shouldn’t be playing. My entire family was flying out for these final games too and as a starter, I was relied on for these final games. I didn’t want to let anyone down.
The hard reality was that I should never have played. I lied about my symptoms so that I could get back, get cleared and play in these final games. I was still suffering through concussion issues but I chose not to tell anyone.
I don’t blame the University, but I do feel like that as an athlete, I slipped through the cracks.
I did make the choice, but it also wasn’t the most positive environment for an athlete to be in. I had coaches saying that concussions aren’t real, that I needed to push through it and that I was being too soft. The team was supportive but I still heard whispers around the room that I was faking it because I didn’t want to be in practice.
Not once did a doctor, athletic trainer or anyone say to me, think about the long term repercussions. You only have one brain, it’s great you want to play but University isn’t everything. You need a job, a career. Nobody had that conversation with me.
I believe that great steps are being taken for change when it comes to concussions because more athletes are coming forward to share their struggles. But here’s what I think we need:
* We need coaches to support the athlete, understand concussions better, be supportive and recognize they are real.
* We need athletes to understand that a concussion is not like a sprained ankle. You can’t get taped up and be fine. They need to have the support from the entire organization from management and coaches down to teammates so that even though athletes might want to play in a big game, the athlete’s health remains the top priority.
* We need parents to be educated properly on what a concussion is and what to look for in terms of signs and symptoms. Coaches might miss it, trainers might miss it, but parents should be part of the team to watch out for what might go unnoticed.
* We need for it to be okay for athletes to come forward and say they have a concussion. Let’s let go of this idea that a concussion is ‘weakness’ so just push through it. It’s not about being the toughest person out there. It’s about taking care of yourself. Speaking out about concussions and talking about them is just as ‘tough’!
* Finally, we need athletes to take care of themselves. To be an advocate for yourself, and think not just in the short term, but in the long term.
I ultimately am suffering from post-concussion syndrome because I didn’t do this for myself. I didn’t want people to know I had a concussion because I didn’t want to be seen as weak.
Today I am undergoing a new kind of treatment doing vision training with a chiropractor. The hope is that I can get rid of my headaches so that eventually I won’t get headaches every day. I am also hopeful I can one day return to lower level recreation sport. I currently coach a high school field hockey team and I work for Sport Manitoba so I am still involved in sport which keeps me going.
My biggest supporters through all of this are my parents. They’ve driven me all across Manitoba to find the best treatment and it’s made all the difference. Even coming home and hearing them ask how I was feeling that day makes a difference. It’s a small thing, but I know I can go to them when I am having a bad day and they are there to support me.
So if you are an athlete going through a concussion, or a parent with an athlete suffering from a concussion my best advice is to stay positive, advocate for what you need and don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Try your best to be positive, because that is what I am focusing on every single day. I know I can do this, and so can you.
Take care of yourself,