Teen's destiny altered by sports concussion

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Claire Sheridan is sitting across from her mother in a coffee shop, talking about the moment a soccer ball changed her destiny.

"It used to be sports every day, and now it's art and music every day," she said. "Now, my life is completely flipped."

Her aim for the future is to be an artist.

Claire, 17, got a concussion in fall 2017, knocking her out of the regular course of teenage life for an entire school year and into the next summer.

She took a hard hit by a ball to her right temple. Later that day, she knew something was wrong.

"I went to help with youth soccer, but then went home to try to do chemistry and other homework, and I felt very confused and kind of foggy," she said. "Then I got a headache."

It was off to the hospital from there, and a diagnosis that she indeed had a concussion, a brain injury caused by a blow to the head that results in cognitive problems and headaches, among other issues.

Sports are a common culprit, accounting for more than 300,000 concussions every year in the U.S., according to the University of Pittsburgh's Brain Trauma Research Center. And more than 62,000 concussions happen during high school sports.

The only way to heal a concussion is to rest the brain, and Claire said she didn't have a choice. She said looking at a screen, trying to read or think in the ways she needed for her schoolwork at Monument Mountain Regional High School gave her headaches.

"I had constant headaches," she said, noting that she went to a clinic in Boston to find a way to manage them with a mixture of medication and treatments, such as craniosacral therapy. "I dropped out of some classes ... my memory just wasn't working. ... I couldn't read the 50 pages a night. ... I tried audiobooks, but I couldn't cognitively write an essay. I wasn't able to produce anything to be graded on."

It was the onset of boredom and a deep longing for sports that sent this girl — whose life revolved around soccer, basketball and lacrosse — back to her love of art. She also taught herself to play the guitar, and for some reason, she said, this kind of brain activity didn't hurt.

"I could deal with chord diagrams, and once I started to build a screen tolerance, I watched instruction videos on YouTube," she said.

Meanwhile, the school's teachers and guidance counselors found creative ways to get her the credits she needed and keep her active. Her mother, Eva Sheridan, said the school accommodated her needs beautifully.

"The guidance team found ways around traditional education parameters," she said. "They found ways for her to find her sweet spot."

She worked on a graphic novel and another project. She even got an assistant coaching spot for the junior varsity soccer team.

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But Claire said she won't play sports any time soon.

"What if I get hit again?" she said, concerned now with applying to college. "What if it lasts longer?"

Life-changing trajectory

"It's not uncommon with bad concussions, that it can change a life," said Dr. Alan Kulberg, a former pediatrician and director of the Concussion Evaluation and Rehabilitation Clinic at Berkshire Medical Center. "I see some, but not the majority, of patients exhibit a life-changing trajectory,"

Kulberg, who sees mostly students ages 8 to 25, said every concussion is different, based on how the injury happened and how it initially was treated.

He said that often what can complicate a recovery is too much rest, which can create a vicious cycle as anxiety and depression kick in.

"It's such a complicated issue, because the longer you have symptoms, the more mood issues play a role," he said, noting that the psychology of a head injury is "vexing and significant."

For this reason, Kulberg, also citing current research, said that patients should go back to some physical activity after several days, as long as it won't make the concussion worse.

"Keeping a person from becoming physically and cognitively deconditioned is where the emphasis is," he said. "You want to keep them going. Brains are going to heal. You have to let the person heal as much as the brain. You can't impose a change on their life that's so dramatic that it's going to result in deconditioning and mood problems."

Knowing what's important

Claire found her sweet spot — her healing spot. She said it was enough to inspire her to tell her story, which she wrote in an essay, in the hopes that it might help other teens she knows who are suffering and not finding a good path to full recovery.

"You were redefining your whole being at age 16," Eva Sheridan said.

Claire's nearly yearlong transformation did even more.

"Now I know what really matters," she said. "I used to think, `I can't miss school. I have to get a 90 on this test.' One test grade isn't going to determine your life, and I used to think it would. I'm happy I know that."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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