Nicola White - My Concussion Story
Nicola White, Olympic Gold medalist with Great Britain Hockey, talks about her experience with concussion and post-concussion syndrome.
Hi I’m Nicola White, Grays Hockey athlete and Olympic Gold medalist.
How did your injury occur?
It was during our last preparation game for the Commonwealth Games. A girl collided with the side of my head, just a freak collision.
How did you feel in the first few days post-concussion?
You know obviously I was dazed, confused, very emotional, angry….everything just seemed bright and loud. So initially lots of things like that but the headaches kind of just started the first few days. It wasn’t until progressively over the next week that I kind of started to deteriorate.
What was the initial prognosis?
So yeah the prognosis was to try and get back for the World Cup. That would have been 3-4 months after the accident and I guess we all thought that was possible but we soon realised that that probably wasn’t. It’s very difficult because everyone reacts so differently. You’ll go for the SCAT test and they’ll diagnose concussion and you almost get tarnished with the same brush even though someone could be maybe back within a couple of weeks and just maybe have a few headaches and someone could be hospitalized and at the other extreme. That’s where I think sometimes the injury is a little bit misunderstood.
How does post-concussion syndrome affect your day-to-day life?
It’s very challenging. It’s very isolating. When I first was struggling quite a bit with day-to-day stuff it would be in dark rooms, barely getting around my flat. Out of the whole injury that first month was probably the most traumatising time. Purely because you’ve gone from being an Olympic athlete to then not being able to lift my head off the pillow, everything is spinning and you’re not really sure when it is going to end. My day-to-day kind of progressed to maybe I’d go to the shop. That would be the one thing I did that day. Not watching TV, I had to colour in books. Try and just basically not stimulate anything. With my vestibular system everything your looking at has to be processed and when it’s damaged it doesn’t like what it sees so everything I’m looking at, if anything is moving or anything is too bright or too much for it it will then just trigger off the headaches or trigger off you feeling sick so I’m hoping that’s where I can make some progress. Trying to get out the house more. Trying to be able to cross the road and see properly. All these things were so difficult. It was quite frightening not to be able to do basic, simple tasks that you do every single day. I still sometimes think about it but they are becoming more normal. It’s just taking time.
Do all the symptoms become lessened with time?
I know everyone presents differently. I guess my main problems were headaches, like feeling drunk, feeling dizzy, feeling very sick. This was like every day. It just didn’t go – it never went and you just have to learn to live with it. Noise sensitivity and light sensitivity and kind of feeling like you’re very slowed down and that you can’t focus, those things slowly sort of get better but what I found is that the headaches and the dizziness and the feeling drunk and that sort of stuff I really struggles with since day 1 and they’re still with me now. I’m happy that I can now be outside, I can now go and speak to people in a slightly busy environment and tolerate it. It’s just a process of self-healing and I’ve been told that every injury has its course to run.
How do you manage the symptoms?
I’ve trialed numerous medications to try and mainly limit the chronic headaches. That was quite debilitating in itself, regardless of all the other things that came with it. Some of them have mildly helped but then you obviously get side effects with them and the side effects then outweigh the point in taking them because it just exacerbates by other symptoms. The other thing that you can really do is rest. That’s kind of how I’ve had to learn to manage it is by me assessing exactly how I feel, exactly whether I think it’s at a level that I should be out of the house or not out of the house, whether I should be trying to swim or not trying to swim and throwing in just loads of rest. I want to play sport, I want to go to the gym, I want to lift 100kg. I want to do everything I used to do but I can’t and I need to be honest with myself because otherwise it will just prolong the issues more and more. So you have to take it very slowly, each step at a time knowing that in the long run that’s the best thing, it’s the only thing you can focus on and then yeah just pray!
How has having access to specialist doctors helped?
I’ve seen headache specialists, balance specialists, neurologists so a number of people externally to try and figure out what the best path is to obviously solve the problem and sometimes they can’t even give you the answers that you want. So yeah it’s been quite challenging but then I’ve really appreciated being able to see the right people so quickly and get the best advice I can to try and help myself. I just think everyone is in that boat of trying to learn and figure out about the brain and about the neural system and about how it all works and trying to find solutions so yeah we’re very lucky as athletes.
How has your condition impacted on your mental health?
I didn’t really know what to do. You feel a bit meaningless and because that your so isolated you kind of feel like you’re out of sight out of mind and it all just kind of takes a very big impact on your mental wellbeing. I know that one of my big struggles through this has been my mental health and that’s quite difficult to talk about because nobody wants to admit when they’re vulnerable and that’s probably why I shut myself off from a lot of people last year because I didn’t want people to see me in that way. I want them to see me on a pitch and winning and trying my hardest. I don’t want them to see me not being able to walk properly or sleeping all day. I guess the bottom line is just accepting that you’re injured, it’s hopefully temporary, you’ll make a full recovery but you’ve just got to be patient and in the meantime that means you can’t play the sport you love or you can’t go to birthday parties or you can’t go and see your friends then that’s something you’ve got to deal with as best you can without making it go the way I kind of went, which was into a very dark place. I feel like I’ve come out of the other side now, learning more about myself and understanding how to deal with very challenging situations.
What are your aims for the coming months?
To be honest it won’t really change much in the next couple of months. I can plan a bit more now whereas that never used to be on the cards. I still now have to wake up and then see how I feel and review my whole day. So I might have something planned to do like go for a swim but if I wake up obviously not feeling very well then I have to adjust the whole day but it doesn’t stop that I want to get back to playing hockey and I’ve still got that in the back of my head that of course I’m driven for that. I guess I’ve kind of accepted the place I’m at and I’ve accepted the fact that my health has to be a priority.
How has your perspective changed?
I think my perspective has changed a lot and all the things I felt I used to get worried about obviously was all encompassed in performance and what we do here and it’s not until you get injured or something big happens that you then realise life is a little bit short. Is it not more important that I’m well and healthy? Normally my mentality is about pushing myself and it doesn’t matter if you’re in pain and it’s hurting because you’re trying to make gains. You then flip it to almost the opposite and go, if I was to live like this forever, how I am currently you know a lot of things would have to change. When I’m ready then I’ll make my comeback but until that point it has to be health first and making sure that I am in the best place possible.
How important has your support system been during this time?
I mean friends and family, well they’ve been there since day one so they understand the whole thing. It’s been very difficult for me to open up to them about it all. There are things that I haven’t wanted to tell them and I haven’t probably until recently. When you are in such a bad way sometimes you don’t want people to know so yeah friends and family have been a lifesaver for me to keep me going, keep me positive and if you don’t have people like that around you it becomes very overwhelming because all you do is spiral in your own thought process of you’re unwell, you’re in pain, you can’t get out, you can’t see your friends and it just becomes a very isolated world.
Can more be done at club level be done to protect players?
I think now that the awareness is building and obviously 10 years ago I don’t think concussion would have even been a thing. I think sports are now becoming more strict on it and we’ve seen it on football games and other sports where you can see they’ve had to go off and get checked or they do it on the pitch. I do think now there is more awareness there and understanding of what can happen that now players are going to be more looked after and not even just the initial thing it’s like ok you’ve got concussion it’s like now what, who are you going to go see or what medication will help, what therapy will help. I think it will probably become a bit more holistic.
What would your advice be to others about post-concussion syndrome?
So I guess part of the reason I wanted to speak about this was because I feel like if I share this story and what it’s been like it will maybe help other people understand the complexity around concussion and it’s not just one dimensional whether it’s just headaches or just sickness. It’s kind of there are so many factors that can be affected and it can be very dangerous. I feel like if people understand those risks and the importance of looking after yourself on a sports field then it means you can kind of keep a look out for each other. I think that is the most important thing. I think you just need to be honest. If you’re not feeling quite right I think you should have the ability to say that without feeling like you’re sounding weak or anything. We’re so driven just to carry on and go through pain but it’s now really important that we don’t do that, especially with head injuries and that we really look after each other and make sure our teammates if we’ve seen something go and get checked out.