By Rick Bennett
This is just my experience. Every concussion is different and the things that worked for me may not work for you. Laughter is great medicine. I laugh often at my misadventures. It is how I deal with challenging situations. I am also aware that dealing with a concussion is not a joke.
Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2019, was the fifth anniversary of the “cracking of my head”. In 2014 I slipped on ice and fell, knocked myself unconscious and woke up on a stretcher as they were loading me into the ambulance.
Stroke of luck #1
I fell at work which qualified me for worker’s compensation. In the ambulance, my head ached and I was in a world of pain. Not thinking clearly I announced to the EMT’s and subsequently to every new medical professional I met that I was in pain and was going to need drugs. I am convinced they thought I had an addiction and was looking for my next high. At the hospital, the scan showed I had cracked the back and the left side of my skull but had no internal bleeding.
Stroke of luck #2
There were no empty beds in the regular rooms and I was placed in the Intensive Care Unit. They checked on me very regularly, I had excellent care – and I finally received medication for the pain that lasted the next eight days.
Everyone kept telling me that I was doing great. “It might take a couple of weeks to recover.” I did discover on the fourth day that care in regular rooms was more “scaled back”.
Stroke of luck #3
When I was first admitted, because of the cracks to my skull a surgeon experienced in concussions was called in to check the scans and monitor me for any signs of internal bleeding. This was the only doctor in the course of my care for the next year that spoke to me with any understanding of concussions. He continued to see me because no other doctor that saw me thought I needed any follow-up. I was released to go home on day 5.
On day eight, as if a switch was flipped, the horrible pain in my head just stopped. I had vertigo. If I rolled to my side in bed it felt like I just kept rolling and rolling. Bending over or riding in a car would set it off. That gradually subsided over the next nine months. A neighbor would come by each day to take me on a walk to build back up my strength. I used a walking stick to help with my balance.
A neighbor told me to keep a diary of my days, by noting what challenges I was having, any symptoms or misadventures, dizziness, how long I slept, how many naps, and also any improvements. If I did not eventually significantly improve, I would need to document my disability. Incapacity due to a concussion is hard to prove and scam artists will fake these symptoms, so I might have needed my diary later on.
Now, two weeks after release from the hospital, and having only minor improvements I wished that some smart person had stepped in. My opinion of my ability to intelligently make decisions was rooted in my pre-concussion abilities. The “cracked-head me” was not making informed decisions. I looked fine on the outside. I could even form some good sentences, hold conversations, move around, and my appetite was fine.
To many people, including some caregivers, I looked and sounded normal – BUT areas of my brain were not showing up to participate. I had injured the part of my brain that handled memory, reading, and writing (my day job skills), and I had trouble staying focused. One day I was going to clip my fingernails and was distracted by an email. Later, while showering, I discovered I had clipped just one fingernail. When I started driving, I kept repeating over and over “Watch the stop light.” I was afraid some distraction would pull my attention away from driving. I had trouble producing the names of close friends and relatives. As I would read a paragraph, each new line would remove my memory of the previous line. I couldn’t process a paragraph! If you were giving me a phone number, I had to receive one number at a time, say it out loud as I wrote it, and then receive the next number.
I went to my appointment with the surgeon, I stated that I thought I could go back to work. After all, everyone kept telling me I was doing great and would be feeling better in a couple of weeks. He reluctantly agreed, but only for half days. This was too soon, and it seriously slowed down my recovery. He later apologized and said that he never should have allowed me to go back to work so soon with the problems I was experiencing. I stayed on half days for months.
Early on, the calls from the worker’s compensation insurance nurses began. They were friendly and supportive at that point, however, they are not on your side. They sound helpful and steer you towards lower cost options. When I started asking for things like follow-up appointments, they started to get angry and short with me. Except for the surgeon, I had no follow-up appointments. The workman’s compensation contact had made an appointment with a sign-off doctor. He gave me a test and I passed with flying colors. He had tested me on things that I was able to handle and ignored the problems I told him I had. He told me I was probably creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The reason that was not likely is that my awareness was totally in the moment. I wasn’t anticipating any future moment. My only thought was the thing in front of me. When I was entering a grocery store, my only thought was “I’m here for bananas” (It was also written on a piece of paper in my pocket). There is the door. Go in. One of my triggers were when too many things would happen. My brain freaked out with multiples. What to look at? What are all of these things? Where is the thing I need? I can’t tell you exactly why but it made me extremely anxious and freaked out my brain. I would be fogged in for days, and it caught me by surprise every time. My “cracked head self” kept forgetting my new situation and defaulted to how I perceived myself before my fall.
On July 4th we went into Trader Joes…it was deserted. We walked to the vegetables, and Ron asked what I would like with dinner. Two things happened. At that point in my recovery, I had no opinion on what I wanted for anything. Beans or ice cream or prune juice were equal, and I would randomly spew out a choice. Second thing, my brain just freaked. Too many things, and a choice to make. It had to show on my face because immediately Ron said, “I’ll pick” and I waited outside.
I realized the doctor was a sign-off doctor when he refused to see me a second time because he “could not help me, he thought I was fine.” And the Insurance contact would not agree for me to see anyone else. I later discovered you have to request a second opinion from a different doctor in writing (an email counts) for them to be required to allow it.
At six months I stopped pursuing the search for a doctor because I starting to improve. It was in stages, and there were setbacks…but function improved. At two years, I reached a point that I felt that if I never improved more than this I could live with it. On one of my walks, I was really down. I had had a setback and was having a major pity party. Then I looked up ahead, and there was a lady in a wheelchair. I thought, “I know it could be worse, but it has been really hard. I can have a pity party.” So, I continued my walk and along came a gentleman in a wheelchair taking his dogs for a walk. He was a very engaging person and we talked about his dogs. I thought “Well crap! God is going to keep putting wheelchairs in front of me until I stop feeling sorry for myself.” The very next day on the same block there was a group of teenagers across the street, cutting up and having fun. One young man was wearing shorts and had a prosthetic leg. I said to myself, “I get it. I get it. No more pity parties.”
I have a wonderfully supportive partner and some great friends. I don’t know what I would have done without them. I didn’t access support groups but would have if I had been going it alone. I didn’t access legal help, and it could have been a mistake. Early on I didn’t know how much I would recover or how slowly. I didn’t have the know-how to navigate the system to get good care. Today’s “clearer thinking me” understands if things had gone differently in recovery it would have been a big mistake.
Five years later I still have occasional trouble with my memory and with writing. Music is still not enjoyable. Reading tires my brain, but I keep pushing to regain that. I occasionally see some things improve – even at five years. I have “tired brain days” especially after a hard week at work. I keep a calendar of commitments and appointments. I am organized and know where to find information that I need to know. I still am very much “in the moment.” I must consciously think about planning, make a list and note it on my planning calendar for it to happen. An upside is that my challenging day job used to cause me anxiety. But because of my concussion, I’m in the moment, and not as worried about things.
I am long past the worst and take joy in the good things. I am at peace with my new normal.
The best thing is that my watercolor painting is better than ever! It was located on the undamaged side of my head. It was like my brain said, “this side is just fine, so let’s use this for a while.” Very early in my recovery, I tried painting again, and was as good as ever. I also saw great growth during that time. I think my brain is at ease in the undamaged area and likes working there. You can check out my watercolor paintings at RickBennettwatercolors.com
Rick lives in Raleigh, NC and actively participates in the arts community, doing plein-air painting, teaching watercolors workshops, and more. Many thanks to Rick for taking the time to share his story with us!