I am super excited to have guest blogger Sarah Urke this week sharing her experience with concussions. Sarah is currently a student at the University of Southern California and a former USA Synchronized Swimming National Team Member.
I was waiting for the right time to post. When I was at the pool last week I saw a swimmer sitting on the edge of the pool. From what? A kick to the head. I hope you enjoy the post and please share. Check out her website www.talkconcussions.com.
When I dove into the pool on October 27th, 2009 I had no idea that it would be my last practice ever as a synchronized swimmer. I had no idea that a small kick to my head would change my life forever. Synchro was my first love – I was obsessed with the addicting combination of beautiful artistic expression and challenging technical moves. I dedicated eight years of my life to the sport and gladly made countless sacrifices to pursue my dreams of becoming an Olympian. It is still surreal to believe that a concussion ended my synchronized swimming career and changed my life so profoundly. It is difficult to know that if I had just done a few things differently, maybe my injury wouldn’t have been so serious and life altering. However, by sharing my painful and challenging concussion story, I hope that other athletes can learn from me and never have to go through what I have.
As an elite synchronized swimmer, I was used to being accidentally kicked all of the time when my team practiced in close patterns. At the time, I didn’t know anything about concussions, so it didn’t faze me when I was accidentally kicked on the side of my head by a teammate when we were practicing our routine. After I was hit, I sat on the pool deck for a few minutes, but I felt fine so I jumped back in to finish practice. I didn’t know that anything was wrong until the next morning. I could hardly sit up without an overwhelming sense of dizziness and a throbbing headache. I went to the Emergency Room and was diagnosed with a concussion and referred to a neurologist who told me that I was fine and could swim as “tolerated”.
Being the dedicated athlete that I was, I pushed through the symptoms because I was used to “tolerating” pain. This was one of my biggest mistakes because I should have been on complete physical and cognitive rest, but I had no idea. I continued to get worse, so I was forced to find a new doctor. I saw a sports medicine concussion specialist who started ImPACT tests (neurocognitive assessment) and put me on complete bed rest for 2 weeks including no schoolwork. It was excruciating because I was used to 6-8 hours of intense physical activity everyday. When my ImPACT scores began to improve, I attempted to return to school, but it was completely unbearable to sit in class with throbbing headaches.
Basic concepts were not comprehendible to me. I finally made the heartbreaking decision to drop out of school. My family and I searched for a “fix” to my concussion by visiting top specialists across the country, trying out various medications and vestibular therapy, but nothing seemed to get rid of the relentless headaches and dizziness.
At this point, we found out that in addition to a concussion, I was also suffering from severe whiplash symptoms. I saw a very specialized chiropractor who helped my neck alignment and suddenly many of my symptoms resolved. I was finally able to successfully return to school full time after missing almost a full-year of high school.
I was still suffering from headaches and dizziness whenever I exercised and was diagnosed with severe deconditioning. I began seeing a team of wonderful physical therapists who helped me gradually re-condition and every day I became a little stronger.
My three year recovery was full of ups and downs and forced me to delay college by a whole year, but with incredible support from my family, hard work, and perseverance I was eventually able to do the things I wanted to do. I couldn’t be happier with where I am now, I am a full-time college student at the University of Southern California pursuing a career in physical therapy and I founded a student organization at USC to raise awareness about brain injuries.
Looking back on my mistakes, here is my advice for synchronized swimmers and athletes in general:
- Get baseline testing
This will help your doctors determine when you are safe to return to play if you get a concussion.
- Play it safe
If you are hit on the head, even if you don’t have symptoms, sit out for the rest of practice. It’s not worth it to risk practicing with a head injury.
- Communicate with your coach
Don’t be afraid to talk to your coach. Many athletes are afraid of seeming weak, but being cautious about head injury is smart not weak.
- After a concussion DO NOT return to practice or competition with symptoms.
It’s excruciating to sit out when there is pressure to get back in. You worry about missing changes to choreography, and risking losing your spot to an alternate swimmer, but your long-term brain health is worth the wait!
One of my mentors, Dr. Dave Baron (Professor and Chief of Psychiatry at Keck School of Medicine of USC, and an international concussion expert) has inspired much of my work to raise awareness and educate athletes about concussions.
Dr. Baron says that “Concussions can be like getting a sunburn, one sunburn doesn’t mean you will get skin cancer, but the more sunburns you get, the more likely it is for you to get cancer”.
Concussions are a serious matter. It may only seem like a small kick to your head, but you never know when that small hit could change the rest of your life. My concussion forced me to learn how to persevere and has inspired my work to help others by advocating for prevention and proper treatment of concussions.
So, follow your dreams, and work hard, but always remember to put your health first.
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