I’m a student at the University of Ottawa entering my final year in the Biotechnology program. While academics have always been a priority for me, they are only part of the picture. I’m also an athlete. While growing up in Ottawa, soccer was my main sport. I began playing at the age of five and moved to competitive at the age of eight, back when the first competitive teams only began at the age of nine. Soccer has been my passion and my pride throughout most of my life. Recently though, I made the difficult decision to “retire” from playing. This was a heartbreaking decision, especially when I’m only in my early twenties. It was an important decision though, because despite my love for the game, I value my head above all. Below I share my concussion experience, and what led me to my recent decision to stop playing.
Back in Spring 2010, I travelled with my team to Toronto for a pre-season tournament. Early in the first game of the tournament, I suffered what was likely a mild concussion from heading the ball. It wasn’t unusual for me to feel dizziness or a headache after heading the ball. As usual, I continued to play for the remainder of the day and more importantly, I continued to head the ball. By the end of the day, the symptoms had worsened significantly. As someone who usually eats twice her body-weight in food (to the astonishment of many), I barely touched my dinner plate and left the team dinner desperately in search of my bed at 6pm. Had my parents been at this tournament, they likely would have noticed my symptoms. Unfortunately though, I had hitched a ride with a fellow teammate, and my symptoms went unnoticed. I likely slept close to 14 hours straight that night (unsupervised and extended sleep is highly discouraged the first night of a concussion) and awoke with lingering symptoms the next morning. Despite these symptoms, I still played in Day 2 of the tournament.
When I look back now, I recognize that this poor decision was provoked both by a lack of understanding for concussions, as well as years of being culturally indoctrinated with the “suck-it-up” mentality. I waved off my dizziness, headache, nausea, and fatigue as the “flu”, and stepped onto the field. Worst of all, I continued to head the ball. In the last game of the tournament, I took two headers back-to-back. With the first header, my vision went completely white. After a few confused seconds, my vision returned only to see the ball returning towards my head. Instinct kicked in, and without the chance for a second thought, I headed the ball again. This was followed by pains in my head. In this moment, my mild concussion increased tenfold in severity, and it was only at this point I finally admitted something was wrong. While the initial sharp head pain diminished after a few minutes, the headache continued to linger.
The next day, I took the morning off school thinking I could sleep off my symptoms. I went to school in the afternoon, but wasn’t there long before calling home sick. I still remember sitting in Calculus class, staring at a problem and barely comprehending the words. I loved math, and was even taking Calculus a year ahead. It was a problem that I would have usually solved quickly, and yet it was as though the words meant nothing to me. I went home, not knowing that I wouldn’t be returning to class for over a month. At home my symptoms progressively worsened, peaking about three days after the tournament. I’ll never forget the feeling of waking up one day, suddenly struggling to pronounce my words and no longer able to stand up without physical support.
Recovery was a long and difficult process. I’m extremely lucky that I had a great support system. My parents prioritized my health and never once doubted me and my school was also completely understanding. With the advice of a concussion specialist, I spent the next few weeks laying in bed in a dark room. It was some of the hardest weeks of my life. Despite the constant and inescapable headache, laying in bed in a dark room, all day every day, was still a deathly boring task and extremely challenging for me. Most who have suffered concussions know, however, that this is the best way to heal. Although it was difficult, I had been promised a full recovery as long as I stuck to it. I was well enough to return to school a bit over a month later, but it wasn’t the end of my recovery. Mental work was still a greater challenge than usual. I still remember breaking down into tears over a sudoku because it was just too overwhelming. Despite the fact that my life seemed to be returning to normal, I wasn’t myself at all. This felt both terrifying and frustrating. Sometimes it was hard to believe that I would ever be back to normal.
Anyone who has ever had a concussion, is familiar with the “fogginess”. This fogginess can be extremely disconcerting and can linger for a long time. For me, the fogginess lingered for over a year. In the “aftermath” of my concussion, I was also left to pick up the pieces of my mental health. The concussion had caused an imbalance in the chemicals in my brain, and as my other symptoms began to subside, I sunk into a bad depression. One of the most frustrating feelings was knowing that I had so much to be thankful for, and yet suffering from an inescapable sadness, every day. I didn’t understand why I was so sad, so tired and so un-motived. It was unlike me in every way. To this day, I am still proud of myself for recognizing something was wrong and reaching out for help. When feeling that way, it is so easy to blame yourself and recoil from those that love you. With a lot of hard work and an amazing support network, I was able to bounce back to a much healthier state of mind.
My concussion experience was one of the most difficult challenges I have faced in my life, and it is not a challenge that I would wish on anyone. Unfortunately, I know that my story is all too familiar for many. While some concussions are unlucky and unavoidable, mine could have been avoided with greater education and awareness. The “suck-it-up” mentality is never a good one but it is particularly damaging when related to your brain. Many young athletes are taught a strong sense of team commitment and dedication. While I believe this is a good thing, I also feel that it can be taken too far. The team should never be put before your own health, particularly when it comes to your head. No game is ever worth the potential repercussions of a concussion. In my case, I sacrificed a lot for the sake of a few pre-season games. In return, I was still ostracized by certain teammates, who accused me of faking my injury and criticized me for not coming to sit and watch practices only a week after sustaining my injury. This, coming from a team that only played one or two more seasons together, before splitting up post-highschool.
Currently, I’m in my last year of my undergrad, I’m doing a double degree in Biochemistry and Chemical Engineering (called Biotechnology) at the University of Ottawa. Science and engineering both play an important role in my life. Although soccer was always my passion growing up, I’ve found new passions in pole fitness and in obstacle course racing. I train at an aerial fitness studio and at an obstacle course racing gym regularly. I also love to bike and trail run. So although I’ve given up soccer (& part of me will always miss it), I still have lots of options open to me.
Both the concussion experience and my team experience are the major reasons I share my story. First, to show people that taking risks with your head can have major repercussions. Second, to offer support and solidarity for those also suffering through a similar experience. And third, to demonstrate the importance of concussion education, particularly in a youth team setting. I recently suffered another concussion from soccer, which is what has led to my decision to retire. After my 2010 concussion, I was warned by specialists that I have a greater susceptibility for concussions and that any future concussions would most likely cause some permanent damage. At the age of 16, I wasn’t ready to give up soccer entirely, and continued to play with the compromise of wearing a concussion headband and the decision to no longer head the ball. I continued to play happily for several years, but my recent concussion has led me to re-evaluate. I was lucky that this concussion was not nearly as severe and that most symptoms have cleared, perhaps with the exception of some lingering fatigue. While I love soccer, ultimately my head is what will lead my career and my life. Therefore, while I can still pursue other physical activity, it has come time to hang up my cleats. I hope that my story can help to raise awareness, highlight the importance of education and/or offer support for anyone going through a similar experience.
– Emma Harrison
It was difficult for Emma to give up the game of soccer due to repeated concussions in order to do what is best for her brain. An Ottawa local, Emma is described by her friends as enthusiastic and determined. Her story not only speaks of her ability to overcome challenges but also touches on the importance of raising concussion awareness to those who have teammates, family members and friends who may find themselves in a position where they are touched by PCS. Although Emma will always have a love for soccer, she has been able to channel her passion for athletics into pole fitness and obstacle course racing.