Boom. Flip! Bang.
In August of last year, I was in an accident. One moment, I was cycling back from the gym, and the next moment I was waking up with people around me. When I removed my mask it, it became clear that my chin was gushing blood. An ambulance was called and I was taken to the hospital. After being assessed in the emergency department, I was diagnosed with a concussion.
The accident happened on a Friday and I was supposed to work in the hospital the following Monday. I reluctantly called in sick and my colleagues helped to find me a replacement. The first few days were the most difficult. I felt I couldn’t even get out of bed. I was not able to walk properly. I was confusing my words and every little sound or bright light was like a dagger to my brain. I recently wrote an article about my experiences and concussion management in general in the medical journal Canadian Family Physician. The article is accompanied by a podcast in which I interviewed hockey icon Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser about sports, medicine, concussions and more.
When I tried to re-integrate my clinical work, my symptoms worsened. It was a roller coaster and any progress seemed to be followed by regression. Two steps forward, one step back. After three months with the injury, I was officially considered to have post-concussive syndrome. Although headache was fortunately not one of my symptoms, I experienced incredible nausea, fatigue, eye strain and dizziness. I’ve been seeing an occupational therapist and physiotherapist regularly and this has been an essential part of my healing.
Now, it’s been over six months since the accident, and I finally feel like I’m improving every week. I’m back doing clinical work (still part-time but working toward getting back to full-time). The main symptoms remaining are that I get tired more easily, and my concentration is not quite yet back to normal. Though it’s been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever experienced, there have been some silver linings.
Among other things, the injury has taught me how to slow down. Before the concussion, I was going at fast pace. As a doctor in a global pandemic, I think you can appreciate why that might be. With my concussion, I was forced to take a step back and sit on the sidelines for a while. Though I felt a sense of guilt for not being able to help, I also felt that my overall stress level went down. It’s interesting and weird that experiencing a brain injury made me feel less anxious.
Through my occupational therapy, I also learned strategies to help get me back to work in a healthy way. For example, when you have a concussion, taking breaks is very important. Since I also have non-clinical jobs, I was able to get back to those first. So I would set my timer, at first just for five minutes, then I’d take a break. Slowly, I increased this amount. Even though many of my concussion symptoms are gone, taking breaks during the work day is something I’d like to keep doing. Breaks during the work days are healthy for the eyes and the mind, and they help to make me more efficient and productive overall.
One of the main treatments for a concussion is cardiovascular exercise. By increasing the heart rate, you increase blood flow to the brain. Activities like biking, running or hiking help to feed the brain with fresh oxygen and thinking improves. Getting regular cardiovascular exercise in the mornings is another habit I’ve decided to keep!
Physiotherapy to improve balance has also been important in my recovering. Meditating more regularly helps with my focus. Having a concussion has also helped me in understanding my patients who have had concussions, or even other conditions where the symptoms can be more vague or the diagnosis elusive. Fibromyalgia and endometriosis come to mind. As I described in the article mentioned above, “Once when asked how I was feeling, I said it felt like a big syringe of water had been injected into the recesses of my brain.” By having experienced these hard-to-describe symptoms first-hand, I will be better able to appreciate it when my patients describe symptoms in ways that veer from the normal medical jargon.
Though it’s not a good thing to have a brain injury, I’ve learned a lot from this concussion. In the long term, I’m hoping that the benefit will be a net positive one, both for me and my patients.