A personal story: Danger lurks when brain is injured

Signs can be subtle -- not heeding them could be deadly

POSTED: 7:27 PM PDT May 9, 2013 
BEND, Ore. -

Athletes who suffer concussions and career-ending head injuries are no stranger to news headlines. But what happens when a fall during a simple family walk results in a brain injury? That's exactly what happened to me in late January of this year.

It wasn’t any different than any other walk we’ve been on. The kids were with us, and it was a really pleasant, sunny day.

After being inside, contending with the weather, we were thrilled to take advantage of such a nice day.

Up at the house, there wasn’t any snow -- and certainly no ice on the ground.

We were passed by a few Bendites who were more experienced on a January river trail than my husband and I were. They passed by us, wearing spike strips for their shoes.

Still, I hadn’t seen any snow -- and again, no ice to speak of.

Further down the trail, it was a different story. There was a substantial amount of ice under the trees where the sun hadn’t reached, likely in months.

I was most concerned about the kids, and told my husband we needed to turn around, and that being on the trail at that point was a bad idea.

"She was saying, 'This is too icy, let’s turn around,'” my husband recalled. The next moment, “I heard a thump -- it sounded like an ax hitting a tree. And I turned around and saw my wife laying on the ground, out cold."

He was several feet ahead of me at the time. When I came to, I thought I felt fine. I recall thinking I was okay.

My husband says he kept asking if I was sure I was okay. He said he was amazed that I felt okay, because the fall sounded so "horrifying."

I did feel fine at first but that changed pretty quickly.

My husband recalled, "She would try and talk to me and couldn't get the words out, which started to scare me. I knew we were going to the hospital at that point in time."

Fortunately, I was in the emergency room within the hour.

After a traumatic brain injury, doctors say you can experience a lucid interval, or what's called "talk and die syndrome."

Dr. James Nelson of The Center describes a lucid interval as common.

He says, "You will feel entirely normal except for having your head hit, but the bleeding is going on at that moment. But you don't know that, and eventually that happens so rapidly, it kills you so fast."

Dr. Chris Graham, my emergency room doctor at St. Charles in Bend, told me I had come in with a “loss of consciousness -- you had headache, persistent nausea, persistent vomiting. You continued to be slow to answer questions."

I had a severe concussion, or what’s referred to as a mild traumatic brain injury.

Dr. Graham says, "Patients with concussion can present differently. No two concussions are alike."

Dr. Nelson added, "The real red flags -- nausea, vomiting, acute neurological changes, visual disturbance. Any of those things, for most people, as a physician being conservative, I'd say it would be good to go get evaluated."  

Seeking medical attention is vital in these types of injuries, because you just don’t know if it is a life-or-death situation.

"You may think you're fine, but they may say, 'No -- something is still not right here,'" Nelson said. "So I think your husband was very good in saying, 'Yeah -- lets go get checked.'"

After some time in the hospital, I went home on what they termed “brain rest.”

"What we want to do is really calm the brain down, so absolute rest," said Dr. Nelson.

"Avoiding working on the computer, avoid using your cell phone, text messaging, avoiding reading, avoiding studying," Dr. Graham said. "I think all that stuff takes a back seat in allowing yourself to recover."

I wasn't sure when I would be able to return to my job, but doctors assured me there wasn't any reason I wouldn't make a full recovery -- and that it would just take time.

However, Dr. Nelson recognized, "You can have a severe concussion, and recovery could take years."

Some days are harder than others. I struggle with headaches and exhaustion, but I’m happy my family knew what to do after I fell.

I wanted to share my story because of all the headlines I read where someone has a head injury, and someone says “they seem fine afterward.” And you hear that from the family -- they often say their loved one “seemed” fine -- until they weren't.

The reality is that head trauma is serious, and doctors say it is better to err on the side of caution than to be wrong. It could be the difference between life and death.