Posted at: 02/18/2013 4:37 PM
Updated at: 02/19/2013 9:49 PM
By: Laura Kennedy
Kaitlyn Miller is a junior with Cloquet-Esko-Carlton. In seven years of hockey, she had never experienced a head injury. But that all changed on November 27th in Grand Rapids.
"I fell backwards and I hit the back of my head. I got up right away," Kaitlyn said. "I went out and continued to play. I scored a goal, but I don't remember any of that. That's just what I've been told."
The next day, Kaitlyn woke up with a terrible headache.
"Your entire brain just hurts, like pure pain and pressure," Kaitlyn said. "And you can't get it out of your head."
She told her mom she needed to see a doctor. Kaitlyn's symptoms pointed to a concussion.
"Headache, nausea, noise, any light made it ten times worse," she said.
Kaitlyn was told she might be back on the ice in two weeks. But during that time, functioning normally was next to impossible.
"I couldnt go to school, could not use the tv, cell phone, computer, literally stare at a wall and sleep," Kaitlyn said. "At that point I was sleeping eight hours a day."
A month after her injury, Kaitlyn still hadn't returned to the ice. Then, on Christmas Eve, something scary happened. She fainted and had a seizure, landing her in the emergency room. It looked like she was done with hockey for the year.
"They told me I wouldn't be playing the rest of the season after that," Kaitlyn said. "I tie myself heavily to hockey so that was hard for me to hear."
Doctors thought Kaitlyn's brain was still trying to figure things out. They took her off some meds and things got better, even symptom free for four days. She tried to practice, but realized it was still too soon.
"I got on the ice, and I pushed myself way too hard. I was super sick," she said. "I ended up getting a headache, a concussion headache, I was puking. It was really not good."
A few more weeks of rest and Kaitlyn's symptoms cleared up again. But she was still failing the IMPACT test, a computerized assessment doctors use to determine if athletes can safely return to action. Pediatric neurologist Dr. Richard Kanoff says even if a player feels normal, they may not yet be ready to play contact sports.
"If you're recovering from a concussion, you're more at risk to get another," Kanoff said. "Your reaction time, your instincts, your ability to protect yourself, your ability to know who's around you and about to hit you is all reduced."
In mid-January, nearly two months after the injury, Kaitlyn made another trip to Park Avenue Therapies and Fitness in Cloquet, and finally got the news she desperately wanted to hear. She had passed the IMPACT test, and was released to play.
"Oh, I got a little teary eyed, not gonna lie," she said.
Her first game back came three days later against Grand Rapids, the same team that was on the ice when she was injured. Kaitlyn admits the thought of returning to the ice was both exciting and scary.
"If you go back too early, you can have serious brain issues," she said. "I went through that being nervous."
The risk that an athlete could be hurt worse is what weighs most heavily on Dr. Kanoff.
"Sometimes lose sleep over that idea of you return them to play and then two weeks later they're back with another concussion," Kanoff said. "That's on my head and shoulders."
Dr. Kanoff says mouthguards and helmets can help reduce the risk of more minor injuries, but no equipment is concussion proof. To keep athletes healthy, players themselves need to make their own safety the top priority.
"It's about our athletes and others taking themselves out," Kanoff said. "It's a culture change and I think it's underway."
Parents like Stacy Sudoh are a big part of the change. She has two boys playing mite hockey for Duluth Heights, and says parents need to pay attention anytime their kids are on the ice.
"Just really keep an eye on not only your own kids but also other people's kids," Sudoh said. "You're always watching and always looking."
Sudoh also believes parents need to understand head injuries. She says the knowledge helped when one of her sons got a mild concussion a few weeks ago while sledding.
"You know, it's scary," Sudoh said. "But I think as a parent, if you know, if you follow through with what the doctor says and you follow your own judgement, then your kid can heal and everything could be all right."
But sometimes, it's the athletes who must make the tough decision. The decision to take themselves out of the game permanently.