Concussions are the most common type of traumatic brain injury, affecting thousands of children each year. Recovery time typically is short but can sometimes last several days, weeks or longer. For 10-year-old Stephanie Jones, recovery took almost six months.
In October, Stephanie was skateboarding in her neighborhood when she fell and hit the side of her head on the concrete. Thankfully, she was wearing a helmet to help protect her skull. Her mom, Terri, saw the accident happen and quickly rushed over, but Stephanie sat up almost immediately and seemed to be fine. The side of her body and knee were scraped, but she was talking and acting normally. As they began to walk home, though, Terri noticed things weren’t quite right.
“What happened?” Stephanie said. “Why am I bleeding? Why does my side hurt?”
Terri began explaining what happened, but Stephanie had no recollection of the accident she had just endured minutes earlier. As the conversation went on, it was clear that Stephanie hadn’t just forgotten the accident – she had no memory of the previous few days.
“Once I realized Stephanie lost her memory, the severity of the situation sunk in,” Terri said. “I tried to remain calm because I didn’t want her to worry, but I knew we had to get to the hospital right away.”
Terri rushed Stephanie to the Children’s Minnesota emergency room. During the trip to the ER, Stephanie developed an excruciating headache. She continued to have difficulty comprehending what happened and where she was, but she was able to articulate exactly how she felt.
“I feel like my brain is a big file room and there’s a fan on,” Stephanie told her care team of nurse practitioners and physician assistants. “Papers are flying everywhere and the files are all messed up, and there are all these workers in there that are trying really hard to get everything back together. I’m the boss, but as soon as I try to do anything to help, I get a really bad headache and I have to stop.”
After a few hours of observation, Stephanie was diagnosed with a concussion. The care team gave Stephanie and her mom information on short-term care, and she was allowed to go home with an appointment at the Children’s Concussion Clinic later that week.
At the concussion clinic, Stephanie went through a typical screening process, testing things like balance, eye tracking and head movement. She could walk and talk fine but still had memory trouble and felt abnormally dizzy. She began physical therapy immediately, but balance tests and moving her head made her feel dizzy and sick. Her nurse practitioner recommended taking it easy for a while – no physical exercise or screen time until she felt better. So Stephanie, an avid reader, passed the time by reading books.
As weeks went by, Stephanie continued to suffer from the effects of her concussion. The physical effects of her concussion were difficult for her to deal with, but the social aspects were sometimes just as bad. At school, typically a great student, she was unable to participate in certain activities like music class, gym or recess, and had trouble with things like problem-solving and organization.
“I was worried kids in my class didn’t understand why I couldn’t do certain things,” Stephanie said. “People couldn’t see my concussion – I didn’t have stitches or a cast or anything like that, so I was nervous they wouldn’t believe that anything was really wrong.”
In December, nearly two months after her accident, Stephanie went back to Children’s, where her care team suggested she stop reading. After just a few days, Stephanie finally started to feel better. Instead of reading, she did other activities like art projects and playing with Legos, and she was able to begin small exercises with her head and eyes to help retrain her brain function.
Once Stephanie was feeling better and could read again without any trouble, she began extensive research to learn everything she could about the injury that interrupted her life. She compiled her information into a report with props and analogies to explain concussions in a simple way.
Standing in front of her fourth-grade class, Stephanie held up a chemistry beaker with a long, skinny neck, likening the beaker to her brain. Cups with different levels of water sat outside the beaker, each representing a different activity – gym class, a math test, playing the piano and more. She added different cups to the beaker until eventually it overflowed.
“That’s what it’s like every day trying to recover from a concussion,” Stephanie said. The more activities and information her brain took on, the more likely she was to “overflow” and get sick. The more she rested, the less likely that was to happen. She continued to explain her concussion through analogies and demonstrations, and the class reacted with overwhelming encouragement and understanding.
A little more than five months after her accident, Stephanie’s concussion was cleared by her care team, and today she is back to life as usual. While her accident and concussion were difficult experiences, she was able to take advantage of it by educating others about concussions so that when they, or someone they love, experience a head injury, they can react with compassion and patience.
“It’s a lot for a 10-year-old to have to go through,” Terri said. “We are all so proud of her for taking such a painful, frustrating situation and finding a way to turn it into something positive. She is one strong girl.”