On the evening of Friday, February 12, 2010, my then 15-year-old daughter Heidi was hit on the head by the stick of a teammate as she was warming up in goal before a hockey game.
It was not a catastrophic brain injury requiring a trip by ambulance to the hospital. But the blow did result in a concussion; one that turned out to be far more severe, complicated and long-lasting than initially thought.
Because multiple mistakes were made in the immediate aftermath of the injury by all parties - including by me, her mother - which exacerbated her symptoms, that cold winter's night marked the beginning of what would turn out to be a fourteen-month long search for answers to the enigmatic riddle that is post-concussion syndrome.
Before Heidi finally arrived at her destination - what we now recognize as her "new normal" - the rocky road to recovery would require three medical leaves of absences from school, and treatment by more than 10 different medical specialists. But for their exceptional care, and for the work of countless others in the field of concussion research and treatment which made such care possible, and whose work I gratefully acknowledge, Heidi's outcome might have been much worse.
This is the story of our family's journey along an unmarked detour, searching for direction on unpaved roads, both unfamiliar and still largely unmapped.
Heidi is 5'10" tall, weighs about 165 lbs, and is from Princeton, New Jersey. Heidi has two older sisters, Roberta and Natalie. She has long red-brown hair and hazel eyes, and wears hearing aids for severe congenital hearing loss, which most people don't notice.
At the time of her injury in February 2010, Heidi was a straight A student at an academically demanding New England prep school, interested in majoring in the Classics (Latin, Greek and other things antiquarian), and widely read on many topics. A musician, she has been playing the concert (pedal) harp since age 8, and is also an artist (sculpture). Heidi loves riding horses and relaxing with barn chores when possible. We like to say she is her own 4-H club: Heidi, hockey, horses and harp.
The final straw
By the time she was in tenth grade, Heidi had logged many hundreds, if not thousands, of hours as an ice hockey goalie. In 2010, she was playing junior varsity, still honing her goaltending skills, still dreaming of playing hockey at the collegiate level. On February 12, the wrist shot she took to the head was just the last of a series of subconcussive blows over the course of a week or so. With the benefit of hindsight, Heidi shouldn't have been on the ice that night.
The prior weekend, during a brief school holiday, Heidi had had some private lessons from her favorite goalie coach. She probably "saved" hundreds of shots over the course of three hours, but none stood out as "dingers."
Back at school, she remembers several pucks hitting her in the head during practice early in the week, but she shook them off.
"Flu-like" symptoms set in over the next 48 hours. While Heidi was already concussion "aware", having suffered two previous concussions, she didn't connect her symptoms with possible concussion; flu-like symptoms in February didn't seem strange.
But when she asked her coach if she could be excused from the Friday game because she was feeling poorly, he demanded that she "suck it up" and play. Because the athletic trainer was late in arriving for the game, and not there to perform an assessment, she took the ice.
Heidi never made it to the opening face-off.
During warm-ups, a teammate's stick hit Heidi in the head during the follow-through from a wrist shot. The onset of concussion symptoms - severe headache, disorientation, drowsiness, dizziness - was immediate. I don't know whether a SCAT assessment was completed, but the fact was, it wasn't needed, given the obvious somatic (e.g. physical) signs of concussion.
Heidi was immediately taken to the school's health center, where her condition was monitored by the night nurse on duty, as it should be in all cases of suspected head injury. A few hours later, after the nurse had re-checked Heidi, I received a telephone call. When I spoke to my daughter, she sounded quite groggy. Somehow, though, she was allowed to leave the health center, where her condition could be continuously monitored for signs of deteriorating mental status requiring immediate hospitalization, and return to her dorm room. By the time she got there, Heidi had already forgotten that she had been instructed to tell her dorm adviser about the injury. And that's the way it was, and worse, for a very long time.