My Lacrosse Concussion Story

Heather Conrad-Clark

Who Am I?

When I think back on playing high school girl's lacrosse, I still remember that youthful feeling of being invincible. I was raised to give every sport I played my all and trained that winning meant everything. Lacrosse as naturally as breathing, and I discovered that playing the aggressive position of one of the attackers was a perfect fit. In girl's lacrosse an eight-inch bubble rule is supposed to be upheld for our protection since we didn't wear helmets. It was a rule many of us learned that was rarely enforced. When you are going in to score you are faced with just as aggressive players trying to stop you from scoring. I can't recall if it was a missed pass or a stick to the head that first took me down, but I do remember that I kept playing and it left a contusion for weeks. My father didn't believe in seeing Drs but that was a common mindset for dealing with sport injuries. If you could see and walk, then you played. There were times after a hit that I played seeing double but told no one. I had a job to do and that was win. The crazy thing is I thought the more blows to the head I sustained and kept playing made me tougher. I knew nothing about the long-term effects of sub concussive blows or concussions and thought I was elite because I would play with head injuries like NFL players. The more I got, the tougher I thought I was. I was giving what the coaches and fans wanted. They wanted a machine that always got back up. Of course, I fed off their cheering and praise. As an athlete it's hard not to. I don't think I could even give a number to the amount of sub concussive blows to the head I took. I suffered numerous concussions and knew despite losing consciousness, I still returned to the games on occasion. But that's what winners do. We don't complain about pain, or injuries if we want to be number one. I was always an athlete that could rebound from injury, but I like to consider myself an athlete that never played dirty. Lacrosse was the first sport I had encountered that subtle hints of targeting the opposing team's best players had ever happened. Being a elite player I was such a target for opposing team's. They talk about the integrity of the sport but as with any athletic competition competing for ranking, winning takes the forefront above safety of players. I just didn't have it in me to do to other players, what was being done to me. Towards the end of my high school career, I was in rough physical shape, but it only drove me to train harder. This was a different world than sports like cross country that I had participated in and completed in a league down the east coast. Where I trained and won without the risk of constant risk of head injuries. However, lacrosse had my heart, the adrenaline and the rush I loved At that time besides migraines, I still entered the NCAA, making Dean's list and not really seeing any severe consequences for the risks I took of how I played. Like many athletes I left out number of head Injuries on my physical because, we were smart enough not to leave a trail. I spent a lot of time with the trainers dealing with the pain I had in my back and neck and the ice bath was my best friend. Even then I still felt I was invincible. Little did I know my time was running out. A second TBI in 1995 changed my world. It not only ended my place on the NCAA lacrosse team, but it changed who I was forever. I had fallen off the pedestal and there was no one there to catch me. When the winning stopped so did their love and support. Not just from Coaches, fans and friends but I was no longer of any use to my father. I could barely write a legible sentence and I believe most professors passed me out of pity. I couldn't walk without a cane without my right leg shaking uncontrollably. I spent the summer learning to walk normal doing water therapy. I couldn't comprehend anything higher than high school reading level. My Aunt had been a former director of the Statewide head injury program in Massachusetts and my uncle was a neurologist. It was clear I had brain damage to both. It wasn't the first time they had expressed concern, which my father ignored but his solution this time was to just pull me from college. After dedicating my life to be number one to please him, I filed and opened student loans. I rejected the term brain damage and refused to accept that I was different. Having no knowledge of head injuries whatsoever, I was completely lost as to what was happening to me. Physically I was able to slowly recover but intellectually I couldn't understand why I got sensory overload, why I couldn't be the student who could get a 3.75 with no effort. Old friends began saying I was different, and I didn't know where to go to belong and be number one again. As you know eat disorders can be linked to head trauma and going to college during the Kate Moss phase; I had found an outlet. It gave me control; it punished me, and I could have something to strive to be the best at. Fit into kids’ clothes and wear Chanel makeup and it didn't matter if you didn't know who you were. You were judged by looks. So that's how I survived and thrived and it's the last memory of my father ever being proud because at least I was the best! I had moments with glimmers of hope. Working as the communication coordinator for the Winter X-games in Vermont. However, I struggled impulse control and didn't even realize it. Getting rides with X game snowmobilers and obtaining more injuries. I wasn't even aware of my slow decline. Dismissing migraines, confusions. It wasn't until I first met Dr Robert Weitzman in 2002, who is still my primary to this day; that I trusted someone enough to admit something was wrong. To tell him everything about my childhood and the behaviors that had progressed. We started with just getting me back to baseline and attempting to get some of my physical injuries under control. countless medications we tried but we found my body was extremely sensitive to most. Dealing with what I called my brain just " shutting down" was still a battle but he had gotten my negative coping skills under control to start. just when we found that Botox helped my debilitating migraines my insurance, stopped covering it. But I couldn't think and act normal around people and everything we tried crashed and burned. Neurologist I saw dismissed me as a woman. Either only professional athletes could get degenerative brain issues, or I must just have PTSD. Slowly, speech, memory, balance, confusion and more issues began to progress. I saw more neurologist that were stating facts that I as a patient knew were false. One neurologist validated some of my progressive symptoms. My fight or flight response that had me borderline agoraphobia at that point. Vertigo falls and balance that now not only were landing me in weekly visits to the ER; but now required visiting nurses and specialists. The final confirmation to what both Dr Weitzman and I both already knew that between the memory loss and blackouts, I was no longer legally safe to drive. However, when I brought up degenerative brain diseases that I had begun to research based on my history and pattern of symptoms, such as the possibility of probable CTE; he informed me CTE was just a fancy name they gave concussions for NFL players. I fired him that day. Dr Weitzman and I both continued to research. We tried to find something linking to my degenerating symptoms and how to treat them. Because of my sensitivity to medication and due to my history of anorexia and refusal to try any medications that had risk of weight gain; I have to say Dr Weitzman went above and beyond what most primary doctors would do for a patient. I don't know if it's because he was amazed, I had survived my past and was still fighting or I was just finally blessed to have found someone who to till this day believes in me. I think the first scariest change in me that never had been a part of who I ever was, was the extreme inner rage and outbursts. Back then I felt I had some semblance of control but today I admit there are days I cage myself in my apartment. I am a empath, healer and would never want to harm a soul. But some days I scare myself. Because NFL players are high profile and due to their size, if they are untreated and triggered; we read about it in the headlines. Though rarely does the public realize it often has connections to untreated or need for adjustment for neurological conditions from head trauma. I am not making excuses, but I am just saying it is a real thing we go through. As a woman it is socially unacceptable to show anger and violence in public. Common labels and stereotypes are put on us when it occurs. Research has been my savior to help me not feel like a caged animal when my symptoms are out of control. My brain mentor Rico Petrini truly not just saved my life literally but has kept me sane directing me to research and advocate for CTE awareness and more to have hope. But I will return to that. By 2018, I was forgetting people, places I had been and experiencing sundowning or getting lost. I decided to go to Boston myself, where I had heard extensive knowledge on head trauma was being done; and get help myself. I had contacted a top impatient brain rehabilitation center and was told you just needed to be inpatient. So, I got myself put into a psychiatric ward, stating my brain injury symptoms didn't want me to want to live anymore. which was true. I didn't recognize the person who looked back in the mirror, the only memories of happiness I had before the head injuries were that of me with my poppa as a little girl. I was literally sick of crying and tired of fighting. No one listened and I didn't even know the person I was fighting for even more. They drugged me up and dropped me off at the subway two weeks later. So, I called another ambulance. At that hospital I learned the rehabilitation center only took patients with recent victims of TBI'S and I could only do outpatient. From there I don't think words could describe the place I was sent. Only that my roommate was literally a rat. I looked on craigslist and found a room to rent from a seventy-year-old woman that was near, where I could do outpatient therapy at the rehab. Logically it seemed to be my safest and best option. My logic was wrong and her own mental health issues nearly got me murdered. The trauma and loss of control and self-anger at my mistake; triggered my anorexia. i soon was in Walden anorexia unit. I left and returned to Western Massachusetts still not eating because I had lost hope. No neurologist seemed to believe a female athlete could have a degenerative neurological brain condition or they refused to see me. Weighing under 90lbs I was back in the hospital. They had no idea how to handle someone with a brain injury and when I continued to lose weight; they placed me in my early forties in a rest home. Unavailable to care for myself due to untreated neurological conditions. I was still a fighter and my beloved Dr Weitzman advocated to get me out of the inhumane treatment. I wish I could say things got brighter from there, but my symptoms only worsened, and it became more and more of a struggle for my Dr to treat me. A terrible trauma didn't help and nor did it help me with controlling the ever-growing rage, impulsive and suicidal issues. I still struggled with balance, vertigo and speech but now if approached about those, I responded with venomous wrath. I had used marijuana to deal with chronic pain from inoperable Injuries but for personal reasons I stayed away from alcohol and street drugs. Symptoms worsening, Rage growing and finally a neurologist saying, "sub concussive blows did not contribute to degenerative neurological conditions...", I turned to alcohol for relief. Oh what a ugly saga that time was. 90% of the time I ended up in the ER after trying to fight the EMTs. I was looking to fight anyone, someone for not hearing me. I even took on the cars in the road, like a gladiator and it took three shots of ketamine to bring me down. So, the rage outbursts you read about are not just real, but we almost disassociate like the Hulk. I finally joined a CTE support group on Facebook. I knew I could no longer do this alone. It was after yet another day of being cast aside that my soul was done, and my brain couldn't take it. I have no other explanation but something good and greater than I put an Admin, who is now my brain mentor and dear friend; Rico Petrini in my life that night. I was ready to end the pain that had been torturing me for decades. No relief for my symptoms and now I had learned that I had early onset Alzheimer's; and would forget everyone I had ever loved. What was I supposed to fight for? Somehow, he got my location and emergency services arrived just in time. He, like Dr Weitzman have not left or stopped believing in me since. He guided me to find a neurologist and get a referral and appointment who knew what CTE was. Also, to help cope he saw my strengths and channeled my energy into research and advocacy. Instead of self-destructive behaviors my drive is to educate and advocate, to make sure no young girl will ever have to experience a journey like mine. I still have a battle, but I also have a purpose that drives me; and that is to save lives!