Part one of this two-part series on student athlete concussions

Concussion victim battles feeling 'like you're not yourself'

Victims of head-hits in university sport struggle with academic, mood challenges

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“A symptom that you can’t really describe is just the awkward feeling," says Brad McConnell, "like you’re not yourself." Photo by: Geoff Lowe

For most of the players on the Dalhousie University men's hockey team, an 8-1 thumping at the hands of St. FX on Sept. 24 was an opportunity to improve their game. After all, it was only an exhibition game.

But for Tigers forward Brad McConnell, that game has defined the last four months of his life. During his second shift McConnell took an inadvertent blow to the head.

"I was back-checking on an opposing player," says McConnell, "and as he dumped the puck in, I went to finish my check and he elbowed me in the side of the head."

He sustained a concussion and hasn't stepped on the ice since. He has not been cleared to work out, as he still experiences some headaches and blurred vision.

Juggling school and a concussion

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McConnell hasn't played real hockey since Sept. 24 and because of his concussion he can only engage in cognitive activity, like playing his Xbox, in 20 minute increments. Photo by: Geoff Lowe

In the weeks following the game, McConnell was monitored regularly by the team's trainer and met with the team doctor at least once a week. He was experiencing post-concussion symptoms, but it was the symptoms that he didn't expect that gave him the most trouble.

"A symptom that you can't really describe is just the awkward feeling, like you're not yourself. It feels like something is wrong but you can't really pinpoint what that feeling is."

McConnell was prohibited from taking part in any physical activity. His doctor told him that even walking a lot was something he should try to avoid.

However, it is the effects on his school life that have given him the most trouble. Reading and using a computer sometimes made his symptoms worse. Even sitting in a brightly lit classroom has caused painful headaches.

But for McConnell, like all post-secondary students, missing school isn't an option. He's currently in his second year of the Bachelor of Commerce program and missing any school would make it almost impossible to catch up.

The pressure on McConnell to continue his studies is increased by the fact that he is attending Dalhousie on a full scholarship.

"It's been a rough few months trying to deal with the symptoms and still manage school. I didn't want to get a semester behind so I just toughed it out and finished the term," he says. "My trainer said that studying for 20 minutes than taking a 20-minute break would allow me to keep up with my classes and minimize the symptoms. I tried it for the first couple weeks and it didn't seem to bother me."

According to Dr. Kevin Gordon, a neurologist and concussion specialist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, the only effective way to recover from a concussion is to rest, both physically and mentally. This includes from reading, studying and classroom activity.

Any stressful activity, from getting in an argument to climbing a lot of stairs, can result in a setback in the recovery process of a week or sometimes more.

The challenges facing injured student-athletes

Gordon says concussion sufferers often feel isolated because of the invisible symptoms, and the amount of physical and cognitive rest needed to recover.

This feeling of isolation can be as debilitating as the physical effects. Something as simple as going to a movie with friends has to be weighed against the potential effect it could have on the recovery process.

According to Gordon, this isolation can be amplified for student athletes. When a student athlete is taken away from their sport, they're taken away from their primary peer group. This only adds to the feeling of isolation caused by a concussion.

Also, many student athletes have come to university from away and lack the support needed to make a full recovery that could be provided by a parent or friend.

"Student athletes after any injury, they get depressed like stink," says Gordon. "So (a concussed student athlete is) somebody that can't go to school, is depressed and has to do cognitive rest."

In a study conducted at Dalhousie in 2006, Gordon estimated that there are 110 concussions for every 100,000 Canadians.

The stresses of academic life, athletic life and isolation are often too much for a concussed student athlete to handle. Pressure to return to their regular activities can result in skipping the most important part of concussion recovery - rest. 

Until McConnell is free of symptoms he will continue with the physical rest, and his studies.

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