“Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.”
— Boxer Muhammad Ali
I had just finished writing an article about local athlete Austin McGrath’s brush with death and subsequent miracle recovery.
The article was emotionally charged and difficult to write. I needed to decompress, so I got on my bike to take the dog for a run. And in a strange twist of fate, one hour later I was the one in the hospital, exactly two months after McGrath’s May 13 cardiac arrest.
My dog Dimitri, a one-year-old giant schnauzer, and I were heading downhill on the Sunnybrook paths. I was going about as fast as my 52-year-old legs could go, when at the bottom of the hill my 40-kg puppy decided it would be a good idea to tackle his buddy.
I barely got the “No” out of my mouth before he collided with the bike.
I had two choices: hit the trees, broken neck, broken back; or take my chances with the pavement.
I yanked the bike back hard, hit the breaks and went flying over top of the bike. I bounced my forehead off of the pavement. Knowing that if my head tucked I would probably break my neck, I strained to keep it upright, and in doing so watched my left wrist shatter. I tucked my arm, rolled and injured my shoulder and neck and again hit the pavement with my helmeted head.
Somehow I landed half upright seven metres down the path from my dog and bike.
For two or three minutes, I wandered around in a daze cradling my arm, not knowing what to do. Luckily, another biker came around the corner and asked if I needed help. It seemed to take me forever to formulate what form that help could take but finally, I handed him my cellphone and asked if he could call my wife, something I could have done myself.
With the help of the stranger, I made it to the top of the paths, where we met my wife, Debbie. As I got into the passenger seat, I told Debbie I thought my wrist was broken, and she said, “Your helmet is pretty scuffed up, too.” But it was lost in the pain of my wrist.
We got to the hospital and my wrist, off-centred to the left and flat as a waffle, was the focus of attention. I was asked once how my head was and I said fine, again dealing more with the pain in my arm than anything else. Over the next two days, no one checked me for concussion.
Four pins, a plate and two days later, I was released from the hospital. That is when I began to have post-concussion symptoms.
My eyes were light-sensitive. I was having memory recall issues, especially with people, places and things. I was having trouble with my balance and every time I threw the dog toys, they would hook left. But again all of this was lost in the pain of my wrist.
Four weeks later, I had my second incident. I was walking the dog at Kin Kanyon. It was hot, so I took Dimitri to the fountain to drink when a little boy exploded out of the water, roaring at my dog like a dinosaur.
Dimitri, startled, took off and took my legs out from under me. I landed with all of my weight on my forehead and my cast. I think I was out for about 20 seconds.
When I came to I was embarrassed. I spit the debris out of my mouth, dusted the dirt and grass off of my forehead and, with as much dignity as possible, carried on down the path.
That is when I marvelled at a change in left thumb. After the initial injury, I had very little feeling in my thumb. After my second fall, 90 per cent of that feeling had returned.
However, after that second fall things got considerably more difficult for me.
I quit sleeping, and I usually sleep nine hours a night. I went down to five, then to three hours and then quit sleeping altogether.
Along with the sleep deprivation came adrenaline, panic and anxiety like I had never felt before.
Two days after my second accident, I blacked out while walking the dog at Three Mile Bend: somehow I was transported 100 metres along the path with no recollection. It was the weirdest sensation.
At the end of two weeks of not sleeping, I would have said or done anything to get relief. I can now see why they use sleep deprivation as a former of torture. The smallest stressors: hunger, loud noises, stress at home would trigger full-fledged panic attacks. I became extremely sensitive to noise, light and temperature. My adrenaline was flowing all the time. I would be startled by the slightest sound or movement. I could no longer watch TV, listen to music, read a book or work at the computer. My ability to focus was extremely limited and I suffered from sensory overload. I just could not attend to anything even slightly complex.
I was barely surviving.
Any physical activity would trigger uncontrollable migraines that would last days, weeks and even months. The migraines would start with a sore neck and numbness in my lips and nose, then move down my arms and legs. Then I would get a severe, pounding headache and anxiety.
My balance was off. My spatial ability was completely gone. I would hit my head all of the time, from getting into the car to getting a box of Kleenex out of the closet.
I constantly cut my fingers when I tried to prepare something to eat.
I put plastic dishes in the oven to reheat things. Not a good idea.
I was a level three boxing coach. I had my athletic training first-aid certificate and my thinking was so befuddled that I didn’t even know that I had a concussion.
I was in a constant brain fog. My impulse control was out of whack, and words and thoughts would come unbidden out of mouth. I would mix up words when I talked, sometimes substituting totally unrelated words in my sentences. It was like all of my sentences ended up in a multiple choice, and sometimes the wrong choices would just pop out.
My hearing was so sensitive, I would wear sound-dampening headphones. I would be talking on the phone and overhear, word-for-word, conversations and TV dialogue two rooms away through a closed door.
It was overwhelming. I joked with my family that I had superhero hearing. I had a constant ringing in my ears.
When I wore my glasses, I noticed that I couldn’t see properly out of my left eye. I thought I had damaged the occipital region of my brain, but when I went to the optometrist, I discovered that the vision in my left eye had actually improved two levels.
I have been pretty active in my life, and suffered a few injuries. I have fractured an ankle, partially torn an Achilles tendon, severed my left ACL and torn the cartilage, fractured too many ribs to count, torn a rotator cuff, fractured a wrist and fractured my nose.
None of those injuries compared to the agony I felt at the height of my sleep deprivation and anxiety.
I would experience all the other injuries combined if it meant not having to face another concussive event.
When you break a wrist, you have some control on how fast you heal, through physiotherapy.
When you injure your brain, the biggest frustration is that lack of control.
Being active also resulted in prior concussive events.
Neurologist Dr. Jennifer Bestard, who figured out that I had a concussion, traced my medical history and calculated that my last two mild traumatic brain injuries were the ninth and 10th concussive events of my life. She told me that my post-concussion syndrome was the worst she had seen in her career. An MRI showed that I had bruising in eight areas of my brain.
I had no way to describe how I was feeling. One of my former boxers, Roman Rzepkowski, described it best when he said it was like having the worst hangover of your life, 24/7, every second of every day.
Recovery was slow and counterintuitive to any previous injury recovery that I had experienced. Eight months after my last concussion, I started back to work teaching, on a gradual basis part-time.
Three years removed from my last head trauma, I am doing much better. I am working full-time. I still have some lingering symptoms, but I feel like I am functioning at about 90 to 95 per cent.
I am blessed with an amazing medical team that helped me put the pieces back together again.
Positives have arisen from my accident.
After having my slate wiped clean, I have been given an opportunity to build a better me. I used to be the typical Albertan, always on the go. Life has slowed down for me. I am taking more time to smell the flowers, watch the clouds and live in the moment.
It has also given me the opportunity to work with 20 teenagers who have suffered mild traumatic brain injuries. My next few articles will focus on four of those teenagers and chronicle their obstacles, hurtles, successes and recovery.
Doug Rowe is a local teacher and freelance writer.