Tuesday, April 06, 2010

What a concussion feels like

On the night of Jan. 14, 2000, four months prior to my 20th birthday, I suffered a Type III concussion. This injury is a bizarre phenomenon that I think offers a telling insight into how the human brain works. I have an elephant’s memory, so for me to lose an entire block of time is something I’ll, uh, never forget. Here’s my story. And please, take my word for it!

I arrange to meet a group of friends to go ice skating. Earlier that day, I had washed and affixed my new university parking decal to my truck. The day had been cloudless and warm. I remember it well. That night, I drive myself to the Hockeyplex in Carencro, Louisiana, about 15 miles from my home in Lafayette.

Christian rock blares at the rink, and the skaters are mostly young children and a handful of teenagers. I didn’t know any of this would be the case when I went, but it doesn’t really matter; the energy is there, and I’m with six or seven of my best friends. What could go wrong?

Here’s what you should know about me as a skater — I’m not one. At least, not a proper one who uses both feet. I can ultimately get rolling (or blading), but it’s entirely with my dominant left foot, so that from the waist down I look like Marty McFly on an invisible hoverboard. Invariably, I go home with a swath of skin missing from my ankle. And forget trying rollerblades. But I always have fun, and generally keep the casualties to a minimum.

My friends and I make our rounds on the rink for about an hour without incident. Some of the more daring among them cut the ice with grace; even I manage to artfully dodge some of the more erratic kiddies. Before long, I have a nice groove going, stopping only for a hot-chocolate break.

I remember mingling with my friends, laughing non-stop as we always do. I finish my hot chocolate and decide to hit the ice once again, so to speak. Most of the others stay at our table. I get back on the ice and work my way into the first left turn.

From what I’m told, a small child got in my way and I tried to dodge him, losing my footing.

I’m told I lunged forward and plowed headfirst into the ice with my right temple, hitting it so hard that my head bounced off and hit it again. I’d later be told that this led to bruises on both sides of my brain.

I’m told that several of the children surrounded me afterward, some of whom laughed.

I later recalled being scraped off the ice and feeling the chill of the ice shavings that covered my body.

The next thing I know, I’m sitting on a training table in a bright room with a dull headache, seeing millions of dancing yellow stars. A woman whose face I can’t decipher is holding an icepack to my head, and all of my friends are sitting around me.

“What happened?” I ask one.

“You fell,” she says simply. I’m then told I’m still at the ice rink. I ask how long I was out. I was never out, I’m told.

The woman asks me my name. I don’t know it. I do, however, know my driver’s license number, and tell her that. I also have a quick flashback to high school, when this happened to our quarterback during a football game. I recall his name too, but not my own.

“Is it 2000 yet?” I ask. When the woman asks me what day I think it is, I say, “Dec. 13, 1999.” One of my friends later recalls I actually said a different month in 1999, so who knows what I actually said?

“Can you tell me your friends’ names?” the woman asks, pointing to each one in turn. I say all the right names, but not necessarily to the right people. I flip last names and misidentify one girl’s middle name as that of my brother’s girlfriend, who shares her last name. As worried as they are, my friends immediately rib me about this.

“I think I’m OK to go home,” I say. “My truck’s outside. I didn’t sell it yet, did I?”

The woman begs to differ, and says I need to go to the emergency room immediately. But before we leave, I have one more question:

“What happened?”

I’d later remember that I left the rink on my own two feet, but with two friends clutching my arm on each side. As we walk out the doors, one of them says, “Hey Ian, I’ll bet you never guessed you’d be walking out of here tonight with two cute girls on your arms, huh?” I laugh, or slur, in reply.

Another friend helps me into his Camaro and drives me to the hospital. A Michael Jackson song comes on the radio. I sing every word of it. At some point during the ride, I ask my friend a pressing question:

“What happened?”

Next thing I know, I’m sitting in the bright ER. You know that feeling you get when you first open your eyes in the morning, and it takes a few seconds to realize what you’re seeing? That’s me every time I move my eyes. I can see well enough, but it takes a few seconds to focus on anything at all. At some point I flash my driver’s license - one which I’ve had for only a few months - and an ER clerk says they can’t believe it’s me.

My mom arrives in the lobby. I’m surprised, but happy, to see her. “How did you know I was here?” I ask her.

“You called me and told me what happened,” she says. I did? Yep, as it turns out, I had called her back in that odd little room, and had even dialed the number. I’d later get a hilarious re-enactment of that conversation.

I look down and realize I’m now wearing a medical bracelet. When did that get there? I deduce that my name is spelled correctly, but my address appears to be wrong. Nothing on the bracelet even remotely resembles an address.

“Poor Ian,” somebody tells my mom, “All that time he spent not drinking and smoking and he killed all his brain cells anyway.” They laugh. Even I laugh at that.

Magically, my surroundings morph into the inside of a CAT scan machine. It’s trippy how it spins like a drum above my face. After about a minute of that, I spend about three seconds being pushed in a wheelchair down a hallway. Then I’m in a room with things that might be toys and a children’s mural painted on the wall. Everything cuts rapidly like a poorly edited film. I swear I even hear the click of the transitions.

A doctor steps outside to talk to my mom, which scares me. He tells me I sustained a Type III concussion, the worst kind that doesn’t lead to permanent brain damage. I accuse the doctor of lying to me. “You’re telling me I’m OK to make me feel better,” I tell him groggily after he returns. “You told her I’m gonna die.”

“Ian,” he says reassuringly, almost cheerfully, “It’s against the law for me to lie to you. You’re hurt, but you’ll recover.”

One of my friends, a former girlfriend with whom I’m still close, comes in and tells me that I’m strong and kisses me on the cheek. My friends head for home.

I walk into a bathroom to wash up. I take a look at my face for the first time since the accident. Aside from a small Y-shaped bruise on my right temple, there’s no outward signs of what has happened. I merely look incredibly drunk.

Later I would receive a letter from the hospital, apologizing for the considerable delay in treatment. So I wasn’t there for only 10 minutes?

On the way home, Mom and I pop into Eckerd to get the ibuprofen I’m prescribed. Yes, I’m prescribed Advil (Super Advil, maybe?) and told I can take that and just go to sleep. My mom explains to the pharmacist what happened to me while I stagger behind her. I don’t remember what they say, except that the pharmacist uses the word “clearly” at some point. I have to sign for the pills, so I put the pen to paper and in a flash, my full signature suddenly appears.

Once home, I take the pills and go to sleep. If I had a dream, I don’t remember it, and it was probably freaky anyway.

The next morning, I’m due to travel across the state with my university’s track team. Obviously, there’s no way I can do this. In this pre-everybody-has-cell-phones age, I also have no way to contact anybody, so my mom and I take the drive out to campus. I want to vomit out the window the whole way. When we get there, I find an athletic-trainer friend and explain the situation. “That’s a good reason not to go,” he says in his dry, witty way. We head home, and I manage to keep everything down.

Later, my mom and brother go out to retrieve my truck. My brother asks me where we were, and I can’t recall the name of the place. I do manage to describe, in detail, the facility and the roads he has to take. That’s enough for him. He finds the place and drives my truck home. I actually take it out that very night, to meet other friends at Barnes & Noble. I still can’t focus very well, and my friends can’t believe I’m out when I tell them what happened the night before. Stupid!

Having a job at 2 a.m. did not help my recovery. A week later, coming home from that job, I run a stop sign and get my first (and so far, only) traffic ticket. Not long after, I get lost in a familiar neighborhood. At school the following week, I am as glassy-eyed as any pothead. For the first time in my life, I am completely clear of thoughts. Scary. I also have a dull headache for a month. The weird thing is, knowing that the pain is from the concussion makes it extremely tolerable.

In the following month, I would bounce back. Some effects do last quite a while — I find myself frustrated far more often, lashing out by punching pillows or kicking walls. Also, I second-guess my recovery at times when I hear muted conversations about me. It becomes an instant punchline for everyone I meet afterwards, who upon hearing of the accident would say, “Oh, THAT explains it!”

I guess you could say I learned my lesson. Except that I went back to the same rink with the same friends a couple of years later. I didn’t suffer a concussion that time, though ironically I don’t recall much else about that night. Maybe that’s for the best.


Nick Istre said...

Yup, that's a pretty bad one. Worse than the one I sustained at, yup... a public skating session at the Hockeyplex (I think in 2000 or so).

It was basically a product of horsing around; I was coming up on a friend who worked at the rink pretending that I was going to check him. I was planning on stopping just short and not even touching him as he wasn't on skates but was on the ice for some reason, but he apparently thought differently, and put his full weight behind taking the hit.

The result was, yeah, I remember him shouldering me in the chest, the distinct sound of two halves of a coconut hitting together, then I was staring up at the ceiling before the reverberating of that sound faded away. As you say, it looked like a scene cut, though my case had the distinct sound to go with the cut.

I was out cold after hitting the back of my head on the ice with my eyes staring into space and me not breathing for 5 seconds, as I was later told. Heck, it looked very much this concussion Paul Kariya sustained. Fortunately, I showed none of the other symptoms of a concussion nor had any lingering issues from it.

Second worse concussion happened, again, at the Hockeyplex, this time at an ice hockey pickup game I think around 2001 or so. Basically was speeding around another player while I was going after the puck and never saw the other guy coming the other way after the puck until it was too late. We saw the collision about to happen, he puts his head down, I pull my head back and turn my face slightly away (basically, "Plan B"*).

I remember the front lip of his helmet hitting me on the cheek just under my left eye, and next thing I remember I'm on all four on the ice, pointing in the opposite direction, looking down at a pool of my own blood that's ever increasing from the blood dripping off of my nose and cheek.

Again, except for the "scene cut" between helmet meeting my cheek and me looking down admiring the increasing red spot (and I apparently was never out as I managed to stop my fall landing on my knees and hands the way I did), I never had any other symptoms of concussion. I still needed to go to the hospital to get the cut on my cheek stitched up (and I've since sported a swanky scar under my left eye). And I was told I sustained a cracked cheekbone, but I ended up going to referee and play hockey games that week (though I re-learned not to get tunnel-vision on the puck. Really, it's not going anywhere on its own...).

Though I apparently don't have the same memory as you do, I can reasonably say that those are the only two times that I've had any kind of memory loss due to head trauma in my life, though I don't know if the first counts as I was out cold with my eyes open.

Those are not the only concussions I've sustained, especially when playing hockey, but those are the most memorable ones.

Too bad the "Hockeyplex" doesn't exist anymore, though the rink is still there under new management and name (laicearena.com, I think? Site is down for me right now and I remember music blaring on the site the last time I checked it...). Actually, since the new IceGator team started up in Blackham (new, as in no relation to the old team but has the same name), the ice rink was setup in the old building and they seem to have public skating sessions going on, though they don't seem to put up any kind of schedule online that I could tell.

Yeah, I really should get back out on the ice. I'd like to play hockey again, but money is really tight for me right now.

* Plan A was to avoid injuries. Plan B was to avoid serious injuries. Basically, I trained myself not to put my head down in a collision, since I didn't think I'd enjoy the resulting possible broken neck. In this case, I sacrificed my cheek to avoid that.

Robert Taylor said...

Ah well Ian now I don't blame you for being wrong on so many things. jk

Ian McGibboney said...

Nick, that's quite a story. I knew you played hockey, but not that we had such similar experiences (at the Hockeyplex in 2000, no less!). Hey, great minds bruise alike. Take care out there.

Robert, yes.