It’s hard to write your own story, your truth, when you can’t remember it. My memory is often likened to that of Dory the fish in Finding Nemo or that character from the movie Memento who has “the inability to form new memories and suffers short-term memory loss approximately every five minutes” - just ask my wife, my friends, and my colleagues!
I blame my lack of memory and retention on three things:
- Being born premature (thanks twin sister)
- Genetics (thanks dad)
- Multiple sports concussions (that one is all me)
Close to 20 years ago, I had three concussions over a very short period of time, during a period of time when treatment for concussions went a little like this: “Shake it off and get back in there!”.
A concussion is a form of traumatic brain injury, which the Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines as “a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain.” Every year it is estimated that there are 1.7 to 3 million concussions related to sports, 300,000 of which occur during football.
I had played sports my whole life, for as long as I can remember (no pun intended). I was no stranger to injury but in my early twenties, while playing women’s professional football, and at the same time recreational softball, I had a string of head injuries — two from football and one from softball.
My final concussion, the one that I always say knocked the sport out of me, was a hit I took on the football practice field. I was a running back — second string (I am not a particularly big person, about 125 lbs wet) — the linebacker was a solid, fit woman, first string. I remember it was dark out, lights all around the field. I can still clearly see the play, I can see myself getting the hand-off and still feel the impact, literally see the stars, feel myself doing everything possible not to black out, gasping for air and then reemerging, completely dazed and confused. If you watch men’s pro football with any regularity, at least once a week you can see this scenario play out, men wobbling off the field, their eyes wide and stunned. I remember one of the coaches asking if I was ok and then basically telling me to “shake it off and get back in there!”, which I did, to the detriment of my long-term retention and mental longevity.
About a week later I was cleared by the team “doctor” to begin practicing again. Around 2 am the morning after that first night practice I woke up with such pain and pressure in my head, I could literally feel my brain swelling. In the ER, the physician scolded me for not taking this brain injury thing seriously, educated me about the severity of concussions, and recommended I retire my football career in exchange for long-term brain function - this was my third concussion in as many months after all!
The decision was not a difficult one for me; I was not going to be an all-star women’s professional football player, but I could be a functioning human — and eventually an academic scientist — but only if I had a few working brain cells left. Consequently, while performing resuscitation research years later, I was involved in a biomarker study on cardiac arrest patients, and was used as a control for which subject results could then be matched against to decrease the effects of other variables. As it turned out, my blood biomarkers were flagged because I had the same neurological brain injuries as were being seen in dead people…not concerning in the least!
It took a good year for the main symptoms of that final concussion to diminish, and I still feel the residual effects today. Every time I struggle for the simplest of words, or I can’t remember an interaction earlier in the day, or last week or last month or last year, I blame those head injuries for my deteriorating cognitive function. My own experience with this deteriorating cognitive function only heightens my concern for all those who play sports as the research on repeated head trauma, especially the recent study on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in deceased football players, is especially alarming. Additional guidelines are needed for the management of concussions longterm, not just for professional athletes, but for all those who play sports, particularly those who start at a young age, as multiple concussions can have a lasting effect over a lifetime...believe me, I know - at least I think I know?
All of this leads me to worry, not infrequently, about what my wife and daughter may have to endure if my mental facilities continue to decrease, as the data are not reassuring! But, as the saying goes, “Happiness is nothing more than good health and bad memory.” At least I’ve got that going for me!