After my first month of general confusion and pain, I was feeling pretty lost. I went home to spend some time with family and celebrated my birthday there. I think this picture generally sums up how I was feeling:
Following my week at home, my mom drove me back to St. Louis and stayed with me for a week. She’s the best. The goal was to finish getting my room together (I had recently moved before my concussion) and get me on track with starting physical therapy and rehab. I had no idea what to expect with physical therapy as none of my friends with concussions had said they’d ever done pt.
The details of my first appointment are a bit hazy. It was in the morning, and I had slept for 3 hours the previous night. I was not going to be happy doing anything physical. Luckily, I was in a seat the whole time. After asking me about my symptoms, the pt had me follow a pen with my eyes while keeping my head still. I had a nystagmus (involuntary eye movements), meaning that instead of smoothly following her pen, my eyes made jagged movements. She then tested other eye movement reflexes, where I also showed deficits. Now it made sense why I was having trouble reading, driving…doing anything. When your eyes aren’t working together properly you end up using so much brain energy just trying to piece together your surroundings. The result is blurry vision, seeing double, and general feelings of insanity (I made that one up).
For the first week, my pt homework was centered around my eye movements. (The exercises were similar to the ones on this youtube video…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epJ1luFyF2o). The idea is that you do the exercise until symptoms start (for me, this was headache/dizziness) and then rest until the symptoms go away. Then repeat 3 times. At first, I could only do the exercises for about 10 seconds before I’d start to fatigue. Fast forward 2 weeks later and I was up to a minute at a time, moving my eyes to a metronome at an allegro tempo.
Eye movements is one part of concussion rehab. Vestibular therapy is another component. The vestibular system consists of part of your inner ear and brain, and it is integral in processing information involved with controlling balance and eye movements. Once my eyes got their act together a bit, my pt worked with me on more vestibular therapy exercises. I have a love/hate relationship with vestibular therapy. Just as with the eye movements, the exercises are meant to work on my weaknesses. So, in order to stop getting so dizzy, I had to get dizzy. I did a lot of twirling around, shaking my head, and moving my head up and down.
The third component of concussion pt is neck rehab . This area has been a major headache for me (literally). In my early recovery, though, I didn’t realize how much of an issue my neck was going to be. I learned a few neck stretches in my first round of pt that I added to my vestibular exercises.
I improved leaps and bounds in my first week of physical therapy. My parents and I even went to the botanical gardens at the end of my first week, and we walked OVER TWO MILES!
I finally had a starting point to my recovery. Over the next 5 weeks, I went to pt twice a week. The best part about going to pt was that there was a donut shop nearby. My wonderful roommates and friends gave me rides, and I in turn bought them donuts. Once my eyes were working together, I was cleared to start trying do drive. I even drove myself to my last pt appointment! I was finally inching toward becoming a functional human again.
August was also the start of the school year. I worked with the school and my doctor/pt to start the year off on a medical leave, as I had just started reading again and was not ready to be a full-time student. I essentially audited my first class, attending class sometimes and trying to study when I felt up to it. Ultimately, at the end of August I wasn’t ready to be back full-time, and I extended my leave through the year. My anxiety was high, and my headache level was high. Although I wanted nothing more than to be able to study all day, it wasn’t in the cards for me. I had significant trouble navigating the grocery store, so how could I be a full-time medical student?
I graduated PT and filled out my paperwork for my leave. I still had a constant headache burning in the back of my head, which at the time I assumed that I might have been pushing my brain too hard. So I decided to go back to my parents’ place in September, with the hope that I would rest and keep up with my exercises. My headache would fade and I would keep working to get back to being myself. I figured a few weeks, a month or two tops, and I’d be fully recovered.
I left St. Louis with a lot of feelings; hope that I would recover soon, grief because I wasn’t able to be in class with my friends, and a lot of pain.