Concussion-U is thrilled to have joined forces with medical students from Dalhousie University. One of their founding members, Ben Cameron, was kind enough to share his experience with concussions. As we have said before, writing about these injuries takes a great deal of courage, and we appreciate him doing so. We hope you enjoy reading his perspective as much as we did!
My name is Ben Cameron and I am a fourth-year medical student at Dalhousie University. Before attending medical school, I spent a few years playing Junior hockey. In honesty, I spent a lot more time watching from the bench, penalty box, and stands than I ever did playing. Here is my concussion story.
Bang! Not a noise but a feeling.
Bang! From your head to your toes.
Bang! From your skin to your bones.
“What the **** was that?”
I remembered thinking, prone in a black world. Slowly, my senses returned. I could hear the rumblings of a scrum just beyond me. My arms and legs tingled. I could taste metal and feel a warm liquid running from my nose to my upper lip. My head didn’t hurt. It numbed, it fogged, it clouded, but it didn’t hurt. A cold embrace from the ice below offered no comfort.
It was March 8th, 2011, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, those were last few moments I ever spent on the ice playing competitive hockey. It was Game 2 of a first round playoff series. I was playing for the Pictou County Crushers against the Bridgewater Lumberjacks, in Bridgewater. Early in the second period there was a faceoff in our own zone. I had my head down, sprinting to the far boards in hopes of getting in position and facing up ice. An errant pass left my defenseman’s stick and slid past me, at least a foot from stick. Head down, I attempted to turn and follow the puck, but before I could, Bang!
I stayed on the ice for a few moments. I was typically a pretty ‘tough’ player. “Don’t lay on the ice unless you’re actually injured.” That was a threat I had heard from countless people in my life that respected the game enough to distain those who faked injuries in an attempt to guilt referees into dispensing major penalties. “I’m not faking anything,” I thought. I knew that was the hardest I had ever been hit, something wasn’t right. I was fearful of what would happen when I stood up. After a few moments on the ice, some attention from our training staff, and some complimentary sprays of water from classy individuals on the Bridgewater bench, I decided it was time I should attempt to rise to my feet.
The instant I tilted my head from a horizontal to an upright position, a rush of blood poured out of my nose, all over my helmet and visor, and down the front of my jersey and shoulder pads. I was able to stand, although my legs felt foreign beneath me. With a quick wink and a grin toward my opponents, I slowly made my way off the ice under my own power. As I sat down in the dressing room, I quickly ‘recovered’. Almost as fast as the cloud came, it was gone. For the next 30 minutes, I couldn’t believe how good I felt. Looking back, my behavior during that time was odd, but I didn’t have any pain so I assumed I was fine. The only thing that kept me from returning to the ice that night, and potentially suffering a devastating second blow to the head, was a persistent laceration across my forehead that would not close.
Eventually, a doctor showed up to suture the wound. As he began applying his trade, the symptoms began. The room spun, my head pounded, and I felt like I was going to vomit. When he was finished, he asked me to count backwards by 7’s from 28. “21 … 14 … 21?” The room went black. I regained consciousness quickly, and proceeded to gag over a garbage can before crying hysterically. My head was pounding and my nose was still leaking blood. I was taken to the hospital, cleared with a CT scan, diagnosed with a concussion, and sent back on the bus headed for Pictou County. I tried to watch the tiny television screen above, but it made both my headache and nausea absolutely unbearable. I had to hold my nose for two-and-a-half hours before it stopped bleeding. It was the worst ride of my life.
The next week was spent on a couch listening to the television, because watching it was excruciating for my headache. I purposely slept as much as possible because that was the only thing that would relieve the pain. To my surprise, the emotional and cognitive symptoms were as bad or worse than the physical pain. I left the hospital being told I had a concussion; nothing was broken; I couldn’t play hockey until the headaches went away; I needed to take a week off school; and follow-up with a physician to have the sutures removed. The next physician I saw told me concussions can take anywhere from two weeks to two months to heal. “Two months? The playoffs will be over in two months. This is my last season; I can’t miss all of playoffs.” The emotional symptoms worsened.
I was a wreck. I was stressed and anxious. I was terrified that everything I did would be a step in the wrong direction and would delay my return. At the same time, I was ‘tough’ and had a reputation to uphold. I eventually returned to classes at St. Francis Xavier University. The first day back I remember climbing the large stairs in the Student Union Building; immediately my head was pounding, I was out of breath and sweating buckets. The fluorescent lighting in the laboratories seemed to enter through my eyes and incinerate my brain. But the doctor’s note had only allowed me a week off school, and finals were within a month. As stubborn and ‘tough’ as I was with hockey I always knew I was a much better student, and good school grades were eventually going to pay my bills. I studied like nothing was wrong even though pages had to be read and re-read, and my brain felt like it was trying to bust free from my suddenly miniature skull.
“Symptom-free for twenty-four hours” is what they told me. That’s what I needed to be before I could lightly exercise. I thought I knew what that meant. The first day I had only a mild headache, I went for a 20-minute light walk that evening. Around midnight, I awoke from sleep and ran to the bathroom so I could vomit. I had never been so scared in my life.
A month and a day after the catastrophic blow, my team was eliminated in the league finals. I was in the dressing room, crying. The realization that I would never play meaningful, competitive hockey again was worse than any of my headaches. I had made several more attempts to come back, but each time I underwent light activities, it resulted in extreme headaches and nausea. Now it was over. Now I knew I would never come back.
Within a week I wrote all of my final exams. Somehow, through the headaches, nausea, emotional lability and difficulties with concentration, I was able to pass all courses with acceptable grades. I thought it was over. A week later I went for family skate and the symptoms returned. I waited another month before attempting to exercise again and luckily I was fine.
People like to ask how long the symptoms lasted for. Honestly, I have no idea. The physical pain with exercise lasted for two months. With that being said, I don’t ever remember having headaches before the injury; now, they seem to come and go freely with the slightest hint of fatigue and/or dehydration. That June I went on to write the MCAT entrance exam for medical school. Despite being medically cleared from the concussion, and even though I eventually did ok on the test, I found it almost impossible to sit still and study. The words wouldn’t stick. I had no motivation and felt depressed. My mind wouldn’t stay on the task in front of me. Of course, this all came in the context of retirement from the game I loved and the dissolution of a 6-year relationship with a previous partner, so maybe it wasn’t due to the concussion. Or maybe it was.
To this day, the mythical cloud that seems to surround concussion amazes me. I was not a medical student when all of this occurred, yet I was a somewhat intelligent young hockey player with an interest in studying the human body. If there is an athlete who should recognize the signs, symptoms and severity of mild traumatic brain injuries, it should have been me. But I knew almost nothing. What does that say about the quality of education provided to athletes, coaches, parents and officials about these potentially devastating injuries? What does it say about leaving the responsibility of recovery in the hands of near-sighted athletes determined to be ‘tough’ and return to the games they love?
Sometimes, when driving alone, I will glance in the rearview mirror and catch a glimpse of the small, shiny scar in the middle of my forehead. Cormac McCarthy once wrote, “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real”. Every time the light catches my forehead at a certain angle, I am taken back to that night in Bridgewater, the cold water being sprayed on me, the colder ice beneath me, and the warm taste of blood. I am thankful for that wound that would not close. The death of my hockey career that night has allowed me to continue living my life, pursue my dream of obtaining a Doctor of Medicine degree, and contribute to Concussion-U to bring awareness to athletes, coaches, parents, and officials. Some people say life is a game; let us help you avoid getting caught with your head down.