Back when I was a kid…
Head injury was a normal part of being a boy. Bike helmets hadn’t been invented yet, football helmets were still made of leather, and we threw bricks at each other for fun.
OK, none of that’s true, bike helmets existed, but I know I never saw one until I was a teenager. The first commercially successful helmet was produced in 1975. By then, I was thirteen years old, my primary daily activity was riding my sting-ray bicycle through the woods—dodging trees, jumping streams, crashing on barely visible rocks and stumps. I never wore a bike helmet until the mid-eighties.
Here’s a rundown of my head injuries:
- Knocked unconscious by a foul ball in a little league game;
- Knocked unconscious when Robert Minogue, while playfully pretending to club me over the head with a hockey stick, accidentally clubbed me over the head;
- Knocked unconscious playing tackle football without pads in college;
- Knocked unconscious when hit by a minivan while riding my bike.
These are just the occasions where I was knocked out. I can think of one other time I wound up in the Emergency Room for a head injury (a party-night gone awry), and there must be a half-dozen other times I conked my head in serious but unmemorable ways.
When my kids were little, we had family story time. One of our reading staples was a collection of pre-World War Two Hardy Boys books. In this series, Frank or Joe Hardy sustained a head injury in almost every book. One of them was constantly being knocked out, but their cognitive ability to crack mysteries was never impaired. In the Hardy Boys books, being unconscious was akin to taking a nap.
A couple of weeks ago, Eli and two hundred other eighth graders from his school went to Hershey Park—an amusement park in central Pennsylvania. It was sort of an end-of-middle-school-hoorah. The kid loves rollercoasters, and Hershey has lots of them. Leading up to his trip, Eli showed me all the videos from the Hershey Park website, first-person point-of-view clips showing the world twisting, turning and flipping upside-down.
The last time I rode a rollercoaster was seven years ago during our last family trip to Dutch Wonderland—a tame approximation of an amusement park aimed at the under ten crowd. After my spin on the Joust, Dutch Wonderland’s “big” coaster, I spent thirty minutes camped out on a bench eating popcorn and sipping a soda, trying to quell nausea spurred by the ride. Every five minutes the park loudspeaker reminded me to “have a Dutch-Wonderful Day.”
Towards the end of his day at Hershey, Eli and his friends stood on an overpass above the Coal Cracker, Hershey Park’s Log Flume ride. The overpass is a splash zone, an area where you expect to get soaked as the ride washes below you. The Coal Cracker did not disappoint: Eli was hit by a wave large enough to knock him off balance and crash his head against the guard rail behind him. He returned home with a big headache but was also seriously jacked from his day with his friends. We didn’t give his goose-egg any thought until the next evening.
Eli: My eyes bothered me all day today. And my head was pounding.
Me: Here, let me look at your eyes with a flashlight. <Brief pause in dialogue while I look at Eli’s eyes> Huh, his pupils are different sizes.
This was the first concussion one of my kids received… probably. We never saw a doctor. Immediately after the pupil incident, we left town for the weekend to celebrate my father-in-law’s birthday. We made Eli take it easy, but all weekend, he was irritable, light sensitive and headachy—all classic concussion symptoms.
During my hours of internet research on concussions, I encountered some information on Traumatic Brain Injury. I relearned what I already knew. A serious head injury can cause permanent changes in ability and personality.
Earlier, when I listed the times I was knocked out, I included getting hit by a car. I didn’t assign any more significance to it than, say, getting hit by a foul ball, but in truth, that accident was a defining event in my life. It serves as a dividing line between my extended youth and my adulthood. It was the end of my uncontrolled sloppy-drunk drinking. It was when it became apparent to my friends that I was ultimately going to marry Susan. And it marked the beginning of a personality shift that is still underway.
When I crashed with the van in 1995, an accident that scrambled my brain so severely that I can’t remember anything from the next twenty hours of my life, the emergency room staff performed a CAT scan on my head. They determined my brain wasn’t bleeding, and my head injury was set aside as a non-problem. Other internal injuries got all of the attention. No one ever mentioned that I might have lingering, long-term effects from the accident.
There’s a scene in the movie Groundhog Day—Bill Murray’s character quizzes his love interest, Rita, on what she looks for in a man. She lays out her perfect man like a checklist, and after each attribute, Murray says “check.” “Strong, sensitive, honest…” “Check, check, check… Rita, I’m really close on this.” This is how I felt earlier this week as I reviewed a list of the common after-effects of TBI.
- Difficulty with social relationships
- Difficulty making and keeping personal and professional relationships
- Difficulty being part of social activities
- Difficulty taking part in recreational or leisure activities
- Diplopia (weakness of eye muscles that causes double vision)
- Decrease or loss of hearing
I’ve told Susan countless times that I’ve never felt “quite right” or “exactly myself” since my being hit by the van. Immediately after the accident, I suffered from acute PTSD, which I successfully conquered through therapy. The rest of these checklist items appeared slowly over time. It’s hard to say whether these are manifestations of the anxiety and OCD I’ve experienced my whole life, as well as the effects of aging. Or possibly I’m seeing a pattern caused by brain damage.
I’ve spent years thinking about and combatting social anxiety without any thought to why it escalated so dramatically over the past couple of decades. And I’ve lamented my poor hearing and vision as an unfair physical degradation at an unusually early age. My brief education in TBI has given me a lot to think about. Suddenly I have a new avenue of information to pursue. Perhaps through further reading, I’ll learn about physical therapies that might counter some of these symptoms I’ve faced for years.
As for Eli, he’s fine now. His irritability is gone, he’s stopped having headaches and his goose-egg is no longer sore to the touch. Susan and I are more aware of what to do the next time one of our kids gets a concussion. As for me, I’ll continue to research how I can reduce the impact my decades-old brain injury has on my life today.