“I don’t remember… hold on.”
“Let me think.”
From my experience of memory loss during my latest concussion, these were common responses I would often give people even if they were asking me what I ate for dinner the night before.
Hi my name is Claudia Black, I am a second year Criminal Justice major and hockey player at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I grew up in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, roughly 45 minutes north of Toronto. There is never a dull moment in my household, being a triplet, there is always some sort of commotion happening. I spent most of my childhood being very active and playing different sports with my sister and brother. Both my sister and I share the same passion for hockey and growing up, the competition between us has always been intense. Lucky for me, we play different positions, she is a goalie.
Over the course of my hockey career, I have received a total of 4 concussions that all occurred during hockey games. My style of play growing up has always been pretty gritty, even though I’m not the biggest kid on the ice. I have never been afraid to go hard into the corners and battle against anyone. There is technically no body checking in women’s hockey, however, there is still a fair amount of body contact that occurs. Unfortunately, this “tough mentality” I have did not work out the best for me.
My most recent concussion is by far the worst one I have received out of all of them. On November 29th, 2015, I had an away game against Whitby; I was in mid-season with the Toronto Aeros at the time. You couldn’t have asked for a better game, we were up 7-0 towards the end of the second period against a good team, and dominated pretty much the whole game. The puck came around the boards and a girl on the opposing team threw a dirty elbow to my head which knocked me on the ground. After this happened I knew something wasn’t right. Once I got back to the bench, I felt very confused, dizzy, nauseous and I had a bad headache. Failing to listen to my body and these signs, I decided that I was fine to go back out for another shift. Fortunately, when I went back out I did not get hit or anything. Once I went back to the locker room I knew something was very wrong and did not play the third period. After the game I was not able to drive home, I was extremely dizzy and nauseous, even to the point where I vomited. I ended up spending the night at a teammate’s house and noticed that my symptoms were gradually getting worse throughout the night.
With the concussions I received before, my recovery did not last longer than about 3 months so I expected this concussion to last roughly the same. It was not the case at all. I was told to stay off my phone, bright screens of any sort, isolate myself in a dark room with minimal noise, as well as get plenty of rest; the typical things you are told to do right after you receive a concussion. Looking back on my previous concussions, I can honestly say I could have done a better job following the protocol directly after a concussion, but since I was able to recover so quickly from those previous concussions, I did not take this concussion as serious as I should have. I got my rest and isolated myself from bright lights and noise but I underestimated how not following the protocol would affect me. It seemed as if once I got this concussion, my life completely went downhill.
I decided to take a year off high school to work a bit and really think about the university I wanted to attend and what would be the best fit for me. I found it very difficult seeing my siblings head off to university, as well as all my friends. It was quite lonely not having anyone around. With all this free time I was able to focus intensely on working out and improving my game, as I was still trying to find a spot on a Division 1 team. Hockey is a great outlet for me because it has always been something that is able to distract me from whatever is going on after from the rink.
Things were finally looking up for me. I started working at a sports store in the hard goods department selling hockey equipment; I couldn’t have found a job I enjoyed more. At the time I just started playing for the Toronto Aeros, hockey was going well and I could not have been surrounded by a better group of girls. I had also just recently committed to RIT to play hockey which was something I was ecstatic about. Everything seemed to be going my way at that point in my life until I got my concussion.
I thought that I would be back to my normal lifestyle in no time but I was wrong. I started seeing a local athletic therapist because I started to notice my neck was very sore and I was experiencing a lot of stiffness. The therapist diagnosed me with a bit of whiplash from the hit and provided me with different neck stretches and worked on loosening the muscles in my neck. About a month passed and I can honestly say my symptoms were much worse than they ever were before. I found my neck pain to be more intense, as well as my headaches. I did not feel myself and many of my close friends and family were commenting that I seemed depressed. This was extremely frustrating and confusing for me because no sort of improvement was happening and I wasn’t sure what else I could do, I felt very helpless.
I then decided to stop seeing that athletic therapist and started working with my team’s therapist. Her and I decided to restart my teams concussion protocol which consisted of waiting for a day until I was completely symptom free to do any physical activity. Unfortunately, this day did not happen for a while. I was not honest about my symptoms and how I was feeling which completely messed up the protocol. I struggled with being on my own all the time and doing nothing. Both my siblings were both busy at school; my sister was having a remarkable season at Union College as the starting goaltender and my brother in his first year at Ryerson University, living in Toronto.
A couple weeks had passed and I had not felt any better. I still had constant painful headaches, dizziness, neck pain, and my memory was really bad. It was a struggle to remember even things that happened the day before. I made a very poor choice to ignore all the symptoms I was experiencing and attempt to “fight through” how horrible I was feeling. I tried to go back to work, which was a disaster; I could not even work a full 5 hour shift without experiencing any symptoms. I also went back to hockey still experiencing many symptoms. It was a vicious cycle of my convincing myself that I was well enough to work-out and play but it got to the point where I actually could not tough it out. All I wanted to do was get my normal life back and I did not realize that the fact I was rushing my recovery only made things worse.
Eventually, after realizing that trying to come back too early and not following the protocol precisely is not something to mess around with, I decided to head downtown Toronto to see a doctor and athletic therapist that has had a lot of success with concussion recovery. For about a month, I took my protocol very seriously. This included recording exactly what heart rate I experienced symptoms at so I knew to not go above that threshold, different eye exercises, acupuncture, and most importantly, being honest about how I was feeling.
After 5 months, I was finally cleared and able to play in the PWHL championship game and contribute to the win we achieved. I think the hardest part of this whole journey was feeling like I wasn’t able to contribute to my team and the wins or be as successful as my siblings were. I came to realize that concussions are not like broken bones, you need time to heal and absolutely need to take the protocol seriously; it is not worth risking your health for a game that I will not be playing at a competitive level later in life.
My advice to anyone who is experiencing concussion symptoms is that you need to trust your body, be honest with yourself and what you’re feeling. If you do not follow the protocol or the recommendations that have been suggested, you are only going to hurt yourself long term.
– Claudia Black
Claudia is a strong, reliable and cooperative individual. I’m honored to have been able to play alongside Claudia over the course of one season at RIT where she entered as a Freshman.