A Freak Accident Changed My Life: What I Wish More People Knew About Concussion Recovery
Starting from the time I was in fourth grade, I struggled a lot with migraines. I experienced such bad nausea and pain that I had to take time off from school, and I was constantly going in and out of different hospitals all over San Francisco trying to find answers. Then a year later, I was diagnosed with abdominal migraines, and given medication to help.
However, it wasn’t until September 2021, my junior year of high school, that I experienced a whole new set of health challenges that spanned two and a half years.
The traumatic incident that started my health journey.
In September, I went out surfing with a friend in Stinson Beach, California. I’m not a very experienced surfer, I’d only gone out twice before, but I was excited to give it another try.
While we were out on the water, my friend pointed out there was a couple kayaking ahead of us. We didn’t think about it much, until it was all I could think about: All of the sudden, a massive wave broke, the couple fell into the water, and the kayak came crashing right into me. I was pummeled by the wave, my own surfboard, and this kayak all at once.
Fortunately, I didn’t black out, but I remember wondering: “Did I just get a concussion?” I didn’t think too much about it, got out of the water, and then just continued with my day.
Then, when I went back to school two days later, I started to feel differently. I was sitting in math class, and I could not focus on anything. I felt like the world around me was spinning out of control. My parents took me to the doctor, who confirmed I had a concussion.
The doctor told me to rest for two weeks, at which point I should be able to go back to my normal everyday life. I waited one week, then two weeks, then three, then a month—but my symptoms weren’t getting better. I was experiencing blurry vision, dizziness, and I just felt completely detached from my own body. I was so uncomfortable. I spent all my time sitting in my dark bedroom, isolated, because that was supposed to be helpful for concussion recovery.
My doctors told me to be patient, but I was getting so frustrated—after all, I’m a very busy, active person. I went from everyday school, activism calls, and dance classes to complete inactivity and isolation. I was left with nothing but my own thoughts and emotions, which amplified my anxiety symptoms. I was so confused and scared about why I wasn’t feeling any better, and I worried this was something I might deal with for the rest of my life. I tried so many interventions, too—acupuncture, massages, more doctors—but nothing seemed to help.
Then, by December of that year, I started to feel a bit better. I crammed for my finals and made up essentially three months of schoolwork. I went back to school the rest of December and January. But the whole time, I was so scared of hitting my head again. I was moving through the world overly cautious about everything I did. Then, when I was walking into class the last week in February, the person in front of me took a step back and we bumped heads. Immediately, everything went blank, and I experienced overwhelming pain. I thought, this can’t be happening again. I tried to convince myself it was fine, because people bump heads all the time. But as the day progressed, I started feeling worse and worse. When I went back to the doctor, they concluded I likely experienced another concussion.
This time, in addition to the blurriness, I also experienced excruciating, piercing pain in my head. Those symptoms last for the next few months, until June. Everyone went to prom in April, and I was stuck in my bed.
It took all of my energy and mental strength to persist through the first round, and now my experience was repeating itself. At this point, I’d already missed so much of high school due to COVID and now because of my concussion, which led to a profound sense of alienation. What’s more, I felt very plagued by depression, because doctors couldn’t tell me exactly what was happening to me, even though I was going to the ER a few times due to overwhelming pain.
Changing my mindset and finding recovery.
During one of my visits to the ER, a nurse (who had experienced chronic migraines all his life) said to me, at some point, you can’t let the injury win. At that moment, I decided he was right. I was determined to take a new approach, and begin taking steps back to the life I wanted to live. I started going back to school and working out again—even though I was continuing to have difficult symptoms, I felt good getting out in the world again.
At some point, you can’t let the injury win.
Since then, I’ve found that going outside and taking a walk can actually be really helpful. Once I started working out again, I also discovered I experience pain relief while I’m weightlifting. Caffeine can also be helpful, especially for managing headache symptoms. I’ve also prioritized fueling my body with nutritious foods, particularly those with anti-inflammatory properties. I’ve focused on eating less sugar, more protein, and as many antioxidant-rich foods as possible.
What’s more, I make a point to spend time with people I care about. Surrounding myself with loved ones always has a positive effect on my mindset and overall well-being.
What I want people to understand about concussion recovery.
Now, I’ve come to understand that what I was experiencing—and continue to deal with—is known as “post-concussion syndrome” which occurs when symptoms of a mild traumatic brain injury last for an extended period of time after an injury. Most people associate this with sports injuries, which often resolve in a few weeks—but no one really talks about what happens when you don’t get better and your treatment plan is unclear.
I’m still experiencing pain nearly every day, and there’s not much doctors can do about it beyond medications to treat the migraine symptoms. I try to maintain a positive mindset, but I do still live in constant fear of hitting my head. There is a real trauma—both mental and physical—that I have to deal with. Most people my age are worried about college, but I’m worried about managing my symptoms.
For anyone with loved ones going through a similar traumatic experience, I encourage listening to how they’re feeling. Educate yourself about their symptoms, put yourself in their shoes for a second, and consider what might be most supportive.
Overall, I think there needs to be more conversation around post-concussion syndrome—and the fact it can impact anyone, at any stage of life. It was so challenging to find resources I could turn to, and I hope that can change in years to come.
Sarah Goody is an 18-year-old climate activist and founder of Climate NOW. Providing insight for NGOs, Sarah sits on the advisory board of Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation amongst other organizations. In 2020 Sarah received the Princess Diana Award, the highest accolade a young person can achieve for social action or humanitarian efforts.