Lauren Isaacs will never forget her last day of high school.
Unlike most grade 12 students, Isaacs never got the cap and gown, never went to prom, never even got the chance to say goodbye to her classmates.
She left for the hospital mid-afternoon on a Wednesday; and that was it.
In the spring of 2014, Isaacs suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI) when she collided with another student at a flag football tryout. While the hospital initially told her she had whiplash and a moderate concussion, she spent the next 13 months deteriorating in health.
At her worst, Isaacs was unable to walk, speak or open her eyes without sunglasses. She suffered severe insomnia, memory loss and personality changes from the way the accident altered her brain.
Isaacs lost in a gamble all athletes take.
New Bill 149, casually known as Rowan’s law, looks to make that bet a little safer.
The Bill, passed last June, helps protect athletes by enacting an advisory committee to review best practices on reducing head injuries in sports,
The committee is scheduled to release a plan this summer with recommendations on how to increase education and awareness on head traumas as well as providing tools for coaches and healthcare professionals to better identify and treat concussions.
The committee will also introduce a policy to school boards and sports associations across Ontario with “Return to Play Guidelines,” outlining health milestones for athletes to hit before getting back to their sport.
The law was named for high school student and rugby captain Rowan Stringer, who died from brain swelling in 2013 after suffering three consecutive concussions.
After doctors declared her death preventable, the Stringer family became advocates for education. They work to help others avoid similar tragedies with the right information.
“Rowan’s law is changing how we manage concussions and making sure that knowledge is already there,” says Dr. Kristian Goulet, director of the CHEO concussion clinic, and paediatric sports medicine clinic of Ottawa. “If you’re going to be doing those high risk activities, you have to be educated on them.”
Goulet worked with the Stringers to help make Rowan’s law a reality. He advocates for education as a way of understanding how dangerous head traumas really are and the importance of taking precautions to keep sports as safe as they can be.
“She knew she had a head injury but didn’t want to come out of the game so unfortunately she took another hit,” he says. “That’s when her brain started swelling from successive hits to the head.”
Rowan’s story is tragic, but it’s not uncommon.
Brent Sullivan, 27, was on a Zamboni glazed path to what he believes was the pros, when he took a hit only six weeks into his university hockey career.
“It was another concussion added to a long list, but that one did the most damage,” says Sullivan, now assistant coach to the University of Ottawa Men’s hockey team.
While Sullivan took time off and got help from school, the head injury caused enough damage that he had to drop out. He has since tried to pursue a number of degrees and diplomas but still experiences symptoms from the successive hits.
“Prior to the concussion I was a good student,” he says. “The hits have caused me to lose a lot of the abilities that students need in order to finish a degree. I’ve tried [to finish my education], and I will continue to try. I’m not going to give up.”
Four years later, Sullivan continues to struggle with concussion symptoms.
“People without concussion issues probably say ‘I forget stuff all the time,’ or ‘I’m grumpy all the time too, don’t worry it’s not concussion issues.’ But when you start to notice it more often than what it was prior, you know there’s an issue there,” he says.
As an invisible injury, the effects of brain damage often go unnoticed and TBIs can feel isolating. It is easy to understand why someone on crutches is walking slower, but it’s more difficult to identify the cause of mental delays.
“It’s like being trapped in the jail of your own mind” says Isaacs, explaining the frustration of the disconnect between brain and muscles.
“Someone could be staring at you and wondering what the heck is wrong with you because you can’t get your sentence out,” adds Sullivan.
Many head trauma survivors share these frustrations and Dr. Goulet advocates for the mental health benefits of sharing similar stories and talking with other people.
Organizations like the Brain Injury Society of Toronto (BIST) exist for that reason, as a place where head injury survivors can get support and interact with peers, according to executive director Melissa Vigar.
“There’s a lot of isolation in brain injury because it’s known as the invisible disability,” she says. “When they’re amongst other survivors who can relate, it validates their experience.”
BIST organizes support groups, workshops and professional talks on topics like managing relationships with a changing personality. They also support family members who undergo several changes with their struggling loved ones.
While all these resources exist, there is still a competitiveness and pride with athletes to just get back to the game.
A Carleton University poster inadvertently contributes to the culture of returning to the game before being fully healed by saying you are letting the team down. (Natalie Pressman)
“There’s always someone on your heels trying to take your spot,” says Sullivan. “Once I started going through concussion issues, people started to ignore me and forget about me.”
“I just felt like if I didn’t come back, my future in the game would be jeopardized.”
Goulet regularly sees those pressures in his patients and uses hockey star Sydney Crosby as an example of someone who took care of his brain injury.
“We know the effect that role modelling has. When someone stands up for concussions saying the right things about respecting them and honouring them and not coming back too soon, that has huge positive ramifications,” says Goulet.
“It doesn’t mean avoid sports altogether because you’re scared of concussions, but when you do have a concussion you just have to respect it the right way.”
Three years after her accident, Isaacs is a part-time student at York University.
She studies social work and while this differs from the path she was on before her injury, she says her TBI has skyrocketed her emotional sensitivity.
She volunteers with disabled children because she understands the helplessness of not being able to express your thoughts.
“The accident made me a different person in every way,” she says. “I’m ready to start the life that I have now and I do my best with what I have.”
While she admits there are still days when she cannot even walk to the bathroom by herself, Isaacs has arrived at a point of gratitude and accepts that her TBI has changed her.
Her old life and new life cannot be compared.