Recognizing a Concussion: A Magee PT Tells Her Story

It’s 9 a.m. on Martin Luther King Day and a quiet day in the Riverfront therapy gym. The holiday and rampant illnesses have caused massive cancellations on our schedule. I am sitting at my computer trying to finish a monthly progress note for one of my patients. It has taken more than an hour for something that would normally take me 15 minutes. I have a killer headache in spite of the four ibuprofen that I popped before leaving for work. I feel like I might throw up the crackers that I ate for breakfast.

Struggling to gain my concentration through the brain fog, I realize that I should have listened to my husband’s warnings not to come to work after the bad fall on ice that I had the day before. I had woken up that morning, feeling a little less banged up than expected, and figured that laying around would never make me feel any better.  I pushed myself to stay for my 11 a.m. patient treatment and sat on the floor for most of it. Clearly the “ignore it and push through” mentality was not working for me.

I agreed to go home from work and see my family doctor at my co-worker and boss’ recommendation. But there was no way that I had the energy to drive home just yet.  I locked myself in an exam room and slept for a solid hour before I could muster the energy to get in the car.

The day before,  I was rushing as usual to my car, trying to squeeze in a quick grocery run when I found myself flat on my back, stunned at how hard the back of my head had smacked the concrete.  The black ice coated my walkway so evenly that I had missed it all together. I slowly gained the strength to crawl to the door to get my family’s attention.

After making it to the living room floor, all I could do was pray that my neck and head were okay. As a Magee PT who sees people in very difficult circumstances, it is impossible not to be painfully aware of all the things that could go wrong with my brain or my spine. My husband drove me to our local ER with nausea, a pounding headache, and a growing golfball on the back of my head.  My back hurt so bad that I had to lie down on the car seat sideways.  Soon I found myself in an ER waiting room full of people who had fallen or had the flu.

After five hours, a 30-second neuro screen, and several CT scans and Xrays, I was relieved to find out that I did not have a subdural hematoma or any broken bones in my spine. As I was released home, I thought to myself, “Gee, that is odd that they didn’t screen me for concussion, given all the attention that it has been given lately.” But the germaphobe in me who had already used hand sanitizer 50 times couldn’t wait to get out of there.

The next day, after getting home from work, I slept until dinner time and got into my PCP’s office that evening.  My doctor recognized that my symptoms were likely that of a concussion and prescribed 48 hours of strict physical and cognitive rest.  He warned me that if I did not abide by the rules, I could have more chronic symptoms that were much harder to recover from.

Immediately I thought of our outpatients with post-concussive syndrome that have to retrain themselves to tolerate the slightest neck and head movements.  I was shocked by how the 20-minute drive to the doctor’s office and short visit wore me out completely. Once again, I rested in my car before driving home.

After my doctor’s threats, there was nothing to do but listen… for once.  I slept for almost two days straight, minus the occasional dishwasher unloading and folding laundry.  In just a few days, I felt like myself again. Thank goodness.

The experience was eye opening to me on many levels. I learned:

1)      how fatiguing simple tasks can really be for someone recovering from concussion,

2)      how very stubborn I am to think that I could have pushed through it. We as healthcare professionals can be terrible patients and not always believe that things can happen to us. Concussion symptoms can be missed by even trained healthcare professionals, and there are times when we need to be told to rest and take care of ourselves,

3)      how limited concussion screening can be even in a large, reputable acute care hospital, given the priority to screen for life threatening matters,

4)      how difficult “brain rest” really is. It is so second nature to pick up the phone as you are drifting off to catch up on emails, texts, or Pinterest in my case. As exhausted as I was, I needed to continually remind myself in those first couple days to cool it with the cell phone and kept it in another room for periods of time.

Most of all, I am glad to be back to myself again and back to work without any lingering symptoms. Every day, my patients’ experiences remind me of how life can change in an instant.

I am monumentally grateful for my better fate this time around.

Julie Cote, PT treats patients at Magee Riverfront.

Julie Cote, PT treats patients at Magee Riverfront.

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