Sharing her story to help others better understand what it is like to have a concussion

Patient Story

By: Virginia Whelan; former Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital patient

Whelan, a junior at The Agnes Irwin School, suffered three concussions since seventh grade. She now shares her story to help others better understand what it is like to have a concussion, including the hardships that a person with a concussion must face in order to recover. 

My third concussion was in December 2011 during my freshman year of high school. It was a Friday night and I was going out for a horseback ride when my horse tripped twice in the very deep sand in the indoor ring at my barn, and I lost my balance. I can vividly remember that my head hit the ground before any other part of my body. I got up right away and realized that in the process of falling off, I had broken my finger. I knew that I might also have a concussion and that I should go to the emergency room. While waiting for my mom to pick me up, the only thing that was going through my mind was my experience with two prior concussions when I was forced to miss school and recover. This was not something that I wanted to go through again.

Once at the hospital, I found that I knew more about concussion symptoms than the doctor in the emergency room that night. The only thing he could tell me for sure was that I had broken my finger and I should see a specialist. He also suggested I should rest for the weekend, not use any electronics, not do any homework, and try to assess my symptoms, even though I already knew I had a concussion. I had already begun to get a headache, I was becoming sensitive to light and noise, and I felt very tired. Although the doctor could not confirm nor deny my claims of having a concussion, based on my previous knowledge, I knew that I had one.

When Monday came around, my symptoms were still very prominent, so I stayed home from school. I also made an appointment with a specialist in pediatric sport medicine with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who informed me after taking the baseline test that I did, indeed, have a concussion and since this was my third, it would most likely take more time to heal. She was right; it took me 14 months to get cleared, and those 14 months were very difficult for me physically and mentally.

My recovery from concussion

During my recovery, I struggled with my academics, my social life, and my athletics. A month into my concussion, my physician suggested I go to Bryn Mawr Rehab to get occupational therapy for my eyes and vestibular therapy for my balance. This was the last thing I wanted to hear; I didn’t want to go to Bryn Mawr Rehab for two hours every Tuesday when I could be doing so many other things. But when I got there, I found that I had two wonderful therapists to work with who helped me through the next month and a half.

Due to my concussion, I had to adapt to new ways of doing things, such as school work, which caused many changes to my academics and my social life. I was always worrying about getting a headache, getting too tired or relapsing back into the other symptoms I had come to recognize so well. All of these worries limited me from doing things I wanted to do like going to school, going to dances, hanging out with my friends, and being able to watch TV. Feeling like a “walking concussion” got frustrating because I had to be very careful all the time. I had to get accommodations at school for testing, note taking, doing projects, and just about anything else you could imagine. When asked to do something, the first words out of my mouth were, and sometimes still are, “Because of my concussion….”, to rationalize why I couldn’t do something or couldn’t do it as well as I wanted to. While the end of my freshman year went considerably well due to my improvement, I was glad to see it come to an end.

Two months later I went back to see my doctor at CHOP, hoping I would be declared concussion-free. When I got to her office, we started talking about how I was feeling, and I mentioned that I usually had a headache at the end of the day and often felt abnormally tired. She suggested that it might have something to do with my eyes being weak and decided to send me back to Bryn Mawr Rehab for a second time. I hadn’t wanted to go to rehab the first time, but the second time seemed like torture. However, I tried to rationalize it and say that it might be the final step in this long healing process.

I started my occupational therapy in December 2012 and found that I would have to go to a neuro-optometrist. The doctor told me that although I had perfect vision, I would need to get glasses for reading and using the computer to reduce eye strain. I didn’t like the idea of wearing glasses, but I could only hope they would help. It turned out the glasses were a great asset to reducing the fatigue I had been experiencing and helped me overcome the last hurdle of my concussion.

In February 2013, I was finally cleared by my physician and my concussion was finally behind me.

Since the beginning of this school year, it has seemed that girls at school have been getting concussions more frequently, but I know that is not the case. The medical world is more aware of the symptoms of concussions and is much more cautious than when I had my first two. When I was diagnosed with my third concussion, I wasn’t allowed to use any electronics, read, listen to music, or do anything that was too stimulating for my brain.

One piece of advice I would like to give to anyone who has or could possibly have a concussion is for them to take the time to heal and to listen to their doctor and therapists. I understand how difficult it is to give up sports and other activities and to struggle in school while you’re healing, but taking that time is essential. Rushing the recovery process when you aren’t completely healed only hurts you in the end and causes the process to take longer.

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