Updated: Sep 21, 2019
My daughter had a concussion. She joins the club of a half a million kids a year who have visited the ER with a TBI (traumatic brain injury). But in our case, our 9 year old didn't know she had a concussion and neither did we. We didn't see the hit, we only saw symptoms. We hope our story can help spare other families the pain and confusion associated with an undiagnosed concussion. Callie Jean is a happy, active, bright child who loves to dance and sing. She wants to be an actress. When she started complaining of a headache and upset stomach I thought it was because she was not eating well or not drinking enough water. We live at high altitude so it's common for our kids to get headaches if they are not hydrated. But her headaches were not going away. Driving home form school she complained that the sun was "too bright" and that sitting in the car made her sick. Her school work was coming home unfinished. She was crying every day and acting like a toddler, complaining about everything under the sun. I started to think that she was suffering from "middle child syndrome". Her big sister had just gone to middle school and her little brother was always demanding attention. I came down hard on her whining and irrational behavior. It was a Thursday evening when I finally realized that the sudden change wasn't a result of being a middle child or from difficulty in school or social issues. My intuition said that it was something more. I didn't sleep thinking that it might be a health issue bigger than we could handle. I set an alarm in my iPhone to call the doctorat 7:59AM, before the morning phone rush at the pediatrician's office. We were at the office at 10am on Friday. The only info we had for the doctor? A headache, consistent for about a week, cranky behavior and some nausea. The doctor wanted to break the cycle of the headache. She gave us a triple dose of Tylenol and sent us home. She asked a million questions, one of which was, "did you fall down or get hit in the head with something?" Nothing I could remember. Callie is a dancer and actress. There were no falls in the past month. Then Callie blurted out, "I was hit in the head when playing kickball at recess." My reaction - Hit in the head? What? I had no idea. Callie continued, "I was pitching in the kickball game and the ball hit me here, in the forehead. I don't really remember what happened". Those were the words that set off the alarms. "I don't really remember what happened". "You mean you blacked out", I said. Callie explained to the doctor, "I was embarrassed and everyone circled around me and wanted to be sure I was okay. I was fine, It only hurt for a minute." She didn't tell anyone and none of the kids told a teacher. Not one adult knew that she had been hit smack dab in the middle of her face with a big red rubber ball that was larger than her entire head. She went about her day, her week, her month. We think it was about two weeks before we were at the doctors office and the headaches had been getting worse day by day. It was a series of doctors appointments that led to our confirmation that Callie had definitely suffered a concussion. I wasn't sure until the last appointment that were were in fact dealing with a concussion. My fear was that it could be something worse, something like a brain tumor or another serious illness. We went from the Emergency room, where they sent us home with a narcotic and anti-nausia medication, back to pediatrician and one week later a pediatric sports clinic and eventually a vestibular brain specialist where they did a vision and balance test that had me in tears. Callie was not able to track a simple butterfly on a computer. She was not able to stand up with her eyes closed without falling over. She had double vision. And to think that I was about to discipline her for being "cranky and difficult.". I couldn't help but think of how many kids might suffer these types of injuries that go unnoticed. We learned that getting a concussion isn't necessarily about a hit to the head or a bruise. Instead, it's about the brain jiggling like jello. Callie was not able to make the cells in her head connect to see, think and feel balanced. She was told to have absolutely no physical activity. She wasn't able to read, watch TV, do computer work or take tests. She had to let her brain rest. After two weeks she went back to the therapist. She was still having balance issues. She felt "foggy". Riding in the car made her headache return. We bought a travel pillow. She learned to stand up against a wall or sit with her knees to her chest when she felt like she was going to fall over. She had to sit and watch her friends on the playground every day at recess. She had one friend who stayed out of the kickball game for about a week but then wanted back in on the fun. Callie was starting to feel left out and depressed. Today we are 6 weeks from her first doctor's appointment and 8 weeks from the kickball game that we think started the problem. She hasn't had a headache in a week. She took her first test at school last week and she did great – above average. We feel hopeful and encouraged that her brain cells are finally starting to connect. Kids suffer concussions every day. The head of the Sports Concussion Institute says it is nearly impossible to know how many kids sustain concussions because many go unnoticed, like Callie's. Usually we see these injuries on the soccer field, in cheerleading, playing football. There are new and necessary protocols for returning to sports. But if kids don't tell someone that something has happened or if they don't know what to say about how they feel, we will have kids with academic problems and brain injuries that result in even more trouble. Our therapist, Nicole Miranda in Denver tells me that many kids she sees try to fake their way out of a concussion diagnosis because they don't want to be left out and they most certainly don't want a coach to tell them that they can't play. This is especially true for high school athletes who are hoping to be recruited to play a college sport. But in the case of our younger kids, tell them what to do if they have what might seem like a small bump or hit. Know what symptoms to watch for. Make sure they know the long term consequences of not healing properly. Not many of us would think to walk on a broken foot but many kids and athletes continue exercising their brains when what they should be doing is "resting their head". Callie had no idea what was happening to her, she would have gladly stopped had she known that she had a brain injury. She was confused and frustrated thinking that she was simply not as good at math as we had been telling her. Parents, use that God given intuition. Press your doctors and get answers. Brain injuries could have implications later in life. We are just touching the tip of the iceberg on brain injury research in the developing mind. Let's support studies that will lead to information about these seemingly "minor" issues. One day we will know more and we will look back thankful. I am thankful to have a healthy daughter who is 99% back to being my happy, active, spunky actress. What I learned from my daughter's concussion:
1. It doesn't have to be a bruise or direct hit to the head to result in a concussion. Often just a jiggle to the brain, whiplash or just a fall will cause the brain to move inside the head and cause damage. 2. Not all kids know what a concussion is – teach them. Make sure your kids know that if they fall or get hit by something, that they tell an adult and that the adults in the lives watch for symptoms. 3. Symptoms vary. My daughter was hungry.Headaches are the most common symptom but nausea, vision problems, balance issues, light sensitivity are others. My daughter felt butterflies in her stomach that she thought was hungry. Anxiety is common with concussion issues. 4. Recovery is lonely.Sitting out at recess, not going to PE, staying home from school. No TV, no electronics. What's a kid to do? We painted, did clay molds, bought a rainbow loom. Be prepared for the psychological issues that go along with the recovery. 6. Although youth sports programs are starting to become more aware, we all need to do more. Spread the word about the symptoms and support the protocols. Don't ever tell a child to suck it up. Don't allow a parent to say, somehow we survived youth sports. 7. Be your child's best advocate. There was no cast or bruise to show her injury. It took one on one conversations for each teacher to understand how important it was to follow Callie's recovery plan. We were fortunate to have a supportive and understanding set of teachers who learned along with us about concussion recovery. 8. Ask more questions. The ER doctor who sent us home after one hour in the hospital never should have given us a narcotic. Ask for a specialist, don't settle when you know there is more that can be done.