“Do you want to have someone feeding you when you are older? If you can even find someone to feed you.”
This was the question I was asked when I was trying to fight my trainers and doctors to let me back on the ice. I didn’t know how to answer the question then and I still don’t know how to answer it now. My trainer wanted me to know the risks I was taking by going back on the ice. I would leave his office with smoke coming out of my ears because no one was going to stop me from playing the game I loved. But, he wanted me to fully understand the risk I am taking every day I put my skates on. I couldn’t and still can’t wrap my head around these type of questions, but this is real life for me now. So, let’s rewind to about a year and a half before.
March 14th, 2015: the day that changed my life. The day that left me feeling like I had a black cloud hovering over me ever since.
My name is Christa Vuglar. I play Division I hockey at Rochester Institute of Technology where I am entering my fourth year of school and my third year of NCAA eligibility.
On March 14th 2015, our team made it to the NCAA Quarter Finals where we were playing the University of Minnesota. We were complete underdogs but when your team makes it that far, all you want to do is play and take in every moment you can. About half way through the first period, I was crushed into the boards like a bug on a windshield but I popped right back up and finished the play like nothing happened. I got back to the bench and of course our trainer, our doctor, and our coaches were all asking the same question; “Are you okay?”. Being the athlete I am, there was no way I wasn’t going to try and play through it. As time passed and the adrenaline wore off, I could hardly walk. My head was pounding so much that the world felt like it was spinning like a merry go round. Little did I know at the time what the next few months would be like.
When I used to think of concussions, I thought you would have a headache for a week or so and be back to normal and playing in about two weeks. That was nothing I couldn’t handle. I kept telling myself it would be gone in two weeks, to just push through the symptoms. Two weeks came and went. After two weeks, I started getting antsy. I wanted to work out and get back to my normal life but my symptoms weren’t going away. I hid them enough to pass my Impact test – a common test used for athletes to evaluate cognitive impairment after a head injury- and get cleared.
It didn’t last more than one day because I still couldn’t invert my head. A couple days later, I was doing inch worms during warm ups with my team and I blacked out. I was fully there mentally but I couldn’t see a thing and I wasn’t able to catch my balance. I had to just sit down. That’s when I realized that there might be something seriously wrong.
I saw the doctor and they concluded that there was something wrong with my vestibular system. I had never heard of this before, so I googled it. The internet said; “The vestibular system is the sensory system that provides the leading contribution to the sense of balance and spatial orientation for the purpose of coordinating movement with balance.” That connected to some of the issues I was having, but I couldn’t explain anything I was feeling.
This started a 10-month process of vestibular therapy. I had no idea what I was in for. It started off with little head movements while focusing on one thing. By the end of me therapy, I was on a balance, doing head swings and trying to spell a word backwards. Every session I would do different types of therapy but it always ended the same: I would stare at a green and blue light. As weird as it sounds it helped for an hour or so but after every session, I would take a minimum two-hour nap. I wouldn’t even be able to think about doing homework until the next day because the therapy always intensified my headaches.
Obviously, there was still something wrong, so I went to see yet another doctor. He recommended that I wear blue-tinted prism glasses to give my brain the illusion that I was seeing everything normally. Without the glasses, when I looked straight the ground it looked like it was cupped, instead of corners, I would see two uphill ramps. There are three sensory inputs that control your balance system which include the vestibular, visual and proprioceptive. When more than two of these inputs are shaken up, (which they were in my situation) the system can’t heal properly. I was willing to try anything to get my headaches to go away.
After a couple of months of wearing the prism glasses, all of my symptoms were manageable. It was a night and day difference. So, of course, the first thing that came to my mind was to get back on the ice. If there were little bumps on the way, I was planning on smoothing them out once I got there. I would soon come to realize that I was becoming my own worst enemy.
However, getting back on the ice also meant getting back in the classroom and I couldn’t ignore the symptoms I was having in class. I was having migraines that were lasting for over four days, so back to the doctor I went. She knew I was hiding something but I just kept telling her I was fine all summer. I was choosing to ignore everything right in front of me because I wanted to play more than anything. I didn’t realize that through all of this my energy and anger were starting to build.
I have always used hockey, running, and exercising to deal with everything else going on in my life. I lost a part of myself with my concussion. I couldn’t run away from my problems, lift away my anger or get a high from playing hockey. I started doing anything to try and replace those feeling even if meant hurting myself, a teammate or someone I loved. These things gave me the feeling I needed for that short amount of time. Then, the headaches and nausea would come back.
I desperately wanted and needed a quick fix, so I went back to the doctor. The doctor recommended I start to take a very low dose of antidepressants to control the migraines and to start writing in a journal to keep track of my day to day symptoms. I knew there were a lot of side effects that came along with taking them. I read stories of people having a horrible time getting off of them and some of the side effects that came with them, but all I was thinking was I that I wanted to get these headaches away and get back to being normal. I also told myself: you will be on these for a month so you won’t have this problem. Boy was I wrong. I hated how I felt on them but they made the migraines go away, so I kept taking them. I felt numb. I had no feelings besides anger and sadness. There would be days where I would cry for absolutely no reason or I would stare at a wall because I was so angry. I would get angrier because I felt so numb. I was so mad I wasn’t getting better. I was so mad I couldn’t be a part of my team. I was constantly so mad at anything and everything. I stopped talking to everyone at home, including my mom. I stopped talking to my team. I stopped hanging out with most people. A lot of it was on me because I didn’t know how to answer the questions people were asking. It was easier to just avoid them and the questions. It didn’t stop there.
If you are on a college sports team, you know that you do practically everything with your team whether it is going out on Saturday, going to watch a movie or doing homework together. You are always with someone on your team. That is besides the weekend games and trips and time in the locker room you spend with them. I felt like I was with my team 12 hours every day before my concussion. That wasn’t the case after my concussion; there were about three people I could be around on a normal basis. Going into the locker room became a chore, I didn’t want to spend more than five minutes in there. I wouldn’t even lift my head. If someone asked me how I was doing I would say: “fantastic” and fake smile. I always said “fantastic” because “fantastic” was the exact opposite of how I felt. Hanging out with my team outside of the rink was also a chore because I would start to have anxiety attacks beforehand. When I would get there, I wouldn’t even lift my head from my phone. It wasn’t just being with my team, at this point pretty much anything was giving me anxiety attacks. I didn’t handle them very well either.
Every day it was getting harder and harder to get out of bed. I was tired of not being able to explain how I was feeling from the concussion or what was going on in my head. I told myself all this was happening from the pills, so one day I stopped taking them and went cold turkey. It helped a little but I seemed to be more upset and angry because nothing was feeling normal. I was crying almost on a daily basis for no reason or over little things that happened. I had zero control of my emotions.
Oh yeah and I was having migraines. It felt like I was getting farther away from getting back to playing hockey. My life was getting consumed by doctor’s appointments, vestibular therapy, and headaches. From the outside, I think I looked and acted pretty normal. It was all the stuff that was going on inside my head and behind closed doors that was really getting to me.
Everyone started getting more worried because it has been eight months now and I was not getting any better. At this point, my current doctor wanted me to get looked at by another doctor. I was thinking what’s one more? He called me a “hopeless cause” and that’s what I felt like. When I told him I wanted to get back to playing hockey, I could tell he thought I was getting ahead of myself. Looking back, I really was. I didn’t have one part of my life together but I thought having hockey back would bring it all back to one piece. That is, until those questions I started with were being asked of me a year and a half after my initial injury.
This newer doctor put me back on the antidepressants because they were doing what they were supposed to, but since I didn’t like how I felt on the previous ones he put me on a “brother drug” of my previous one.
This is when things started going from bad to worse. I started having suicidal thoughts. I would be driving home from school in the wrong lane hoping someone would hit me. I started taking up to five pills instead of one at night hoping I wouldn’t wake up. The list goes on. I would go home and cry because I knew I didn’t want to follow through but I was still doing it. I knew I couldn’t be alone. I slept one place or another even if that meant sleeping in a twin-size bed with someone else at the dorms. I didn’t know what do or who to talk to because there is just such a strange stigma with this. After a couple weeks, I talked to my trainers about it. They told me to stop taking the medication and to let the doctor know what was happening the next time I saw him so that he could change the doses and the type of medication. Once this was changed, things started looking up for the first time in a long time.
I was starting to get back to running and body weight workouts. I was still very far away from hockey but I was glad the worst part was over. The new medication was keeping the migraines at bay and the vestibular therapy and physically therapy was working. I didn’t need my glasses anymore. I was feeling like I was getting there and I had summer break to restart again.
Reading this, you are probably thinking: well what about school. I was put on disability services from the first week of my concussion which meant I had special privileges and all my professors knew about the injury. I missed two weeks in the beginning (I snuck to a few classes, so I wouldn’t fall too far behind). I now had time and a half to take every exam and I had note takers for each of my classes. I honestly could only pay attention to 10 minutes of class without getting a headache, so that’s what I did. When I was feeling better, I would only have to take a five or ten-minute break in the middle of class so I wouldn’t get a headache. Classes were easy, homework and studying is where everything got harder. For a year it was hard to look at computer for more than 10 minutes at a time. With almost everything being done on a computer, what used to take an hour was now taking about five. It was very frustrating. Surprisingly, I didn’t fall behind (just one class) and my grades weren’t anything to be worried about. So, school just meant more headaches and break times which is still a pretty normal thing for me.
That summer I started putting on weight again. I had lost about 25 pounds over the previous year from all the stress. I was working a full-time job and I wasn’t having as many headaches. I was starting to feel like myself again and I was getting used to the new normal. I was starting to feel happy again.
By this time, it was the end of July. For hockey players, this is crunch time for the season. I was just then finally going to be completely off my medication. Since I had already been having so many problems with it, they wanted me to get off it by decreasing my dose by 5 mg a month. I didn’t have months, I had weeks until the season started. So, I just cut it out cold turkey again without letting anyone know. Another one of my horrible ideas with this concussion process. I thought I could handle it because I felt like I had figured it out in the beginning of the summer. Then I started getting withdrawal headaches that would last weeks at a time. I would get so irritable that the smallest thing would make me loose it and then I would cry for hours until I fell asleep. These temper tantrums were like 3 year olds losing it. I would throw everything in sight, screaming and crying and the list can go on. The thing is, when you are older, you aren’t just throwing a plastic toy; instead I was throwing my phone and my laptop. After the withdrawal side effects faded, I began learning about how to live with my “new normal”.
My “new normal” is something I still struggle with. I still get migraines from time to time where I lose my vision and my head pounds but they are not what they once were. Then there is the more constant part that I have been struggling with: my memory. Whether it is remembering information for school or trying to remember stuff that happened before the hit. There is more than that too, of course. I don’t even like to think about the depression or the Alzheimer’s that is more possible in my future.
So, back to the question I started with: “Do you want to have someone feeding you when you are older? If you can even find someone to feed you.” Honestly, I still don’t completely understand the risk I am taking every time I step on the ice but I still wake up every day and lace up my skates for practices and games. I know it is stupid but for some reason I can’t let go.
A big thing I struggled with and still struggle with is the way I handled myself throughout the whole process. There are probably a million things I would do differently if I could but on the other end of it I have learned more about myself and recovery than I knew possible.
If you are going through this, always remember there are people there for you and don’t hesitate to talk to someone.
– Christa Vuglar
To me, Christa is a friend, a teammate and the one person who had a true understanding of my struggles associated with PCS because (surprise) our syndromes overlapped in their progression. Although I would not wish PCS on anyone, I am beyond thankful to have received the support and empathy that Christa offered me during a very difficult year. Christa is strong, persistent and determined. All of these qualities are exemplified in her story as she recounts her experience with PCS that lasted her a year and a half and still has lingering effects on her life to this day