Today the sun is shining. The weather is clear. It is not unlike that fateful day five years ago when so much changed. Then I was a “soccer mom.” Every week was filled with trips to the practice field and weekends were coordinated around games. My daughter was dedicated and determined. In her sports career of soccer and basketball, she had suffered injuries. It was a natural expectation in competitive sports. Play tough, have a setback, return. I still keep a tiny remnant from one of her casts as a reminder to never quit no matter how often you get knocked down. This was different.
Everyone said concussions in soccer are among the worst injuries. Yet, this proclamation was followed with the assurance, “but the chances of your child suffering such an injury is so remote, don’t worry!” A year before that fateful day, my daughter had suffered a severe ankle fracture through the growth plate with joint damage after a player standing behind her in a penalty kick unbeknowingly, and purposely, placed her foot between my daughter’s feet so that if she moved, she was destined to fall. Such is the risk in a game where coaches have taught their players to win at all costs. Winning fairly is one thing. Winning using dirty tricks is another. My mother stepped in to help with the doctor’s appointments and seeing the extent of that injury, she did not want my daughter to play any more. She called it “too dangerous.” In hindsight, mother did know best, but my daughter was driven to return to the field and the sport she loved, so we allowed her to sign up for another year.
Everything seemed to be going well. We were two games away from the end of the season. No injuries. In fact, injuries were not even in my thoughts. The game was being played on our home field, an astroturf field, maintained in good condition in stark contrast to the many fields she had played on with ripped astroturf, divets, and a myriad of other tripping hazards. The team they were playing was aggressive, but more than that they played by the “whatever it takes to win, and not get caught” strategy. On several occasions the ref had raised his hand and yellow-carded (warned) several players on the opposing team. Two minutes left in the game. Our team was ahead. The opposing team had kicked the ball. My daughter was a defensive player. The ball was headed straight to her and she had a clear shot at heading it to her teammate. Out of nowhere, a player who had already received one yellow-card, raced at my daughter. The speed of the game disappeared and everything seemed to go into slo-motion. I sat in the stands and held my breath as the opposing player collided with my daughter’s head. The first shot, a head-to-head collision. The second shot, my daughter flying backwards and watching her head bounce against the ground, once, twice. And then nothing. She was down and motionless.
The referees didn’t even notice for a few moments, but her teammates had stopped playing and her coaches ran out on the field. My motherly instincts wanted to race out to her as well, but even in that horrible moment, I was a rule-follower. No parents on the field. I told my nine-year old son to stay with another parent and raced around the perimeter of the field as fast as I could. The distance seemed to grow the further I ran and I felt as if I would never reach the team bench. I kept running. Finally, I arrived. She had been moved off the field. She was awake. A huge lump was over her forehead. The coaches kept saying she would be fine. I looked at my daughter. She was giddy, trying to brush off her injury, and asking to return to the game despite the lump and the ice pack being pressed against her head. Natasha Richardson!! All I could think of was the story I had read about her fatal injury. She had laughed, brushed off her injury, and said she was fine. This time, my mother instincts were not going to be suppressed.
The clock had run down. The game was over. I helped my daughter to the car and grabbed my son. Cell phone laws be damned. I called my husband at home and said to meet me outside with fresh ice packs and to get our son. All I could think was not wanting him to be a witness anymore than he already had. As soon as I dropped him off, I was going to take her to the Emergency Room. We had not made it very far down the road, when she was in tears crying about the pain and the light. My son passed a folded towel forward to put over her head. I tried to focus on driving, silently cursing every light that slowed us down and wishing every other car would clear off the road. This injury was different. I knew it with every fiber of my being.
We were brought into an examining room as soon as we arrived at the hospital. The nurses accommodated her request that the lights be off in the room, but it wasn’t dark enough. A blanket was used to cover her head and shield her eyes. I sat silently by her bed praying as she underwent tests, prodding, exams, and medical staff spoke in hushed tones too soft to hear. The ultimate diagnosis was “concussion.” We were to follow up with our pediatrician and a neurologist. The unseen journey had begun.
For most, recovery from a concussion takes days or weeks. Sometimes, it may be longer. Then there is the small percentage of athletes who suffer a concussion and never recover. She had suffered a double hit to both the front and back of her head. In those brief seconds her brain had been knocked backward and then forward. The odds were not in her favor. June 8, 2014, began a journey down a long road of endless doctors appointments with specialists in all different fields; experts all claiming to have the answers or knowledge how to make life bearable; how to relieve the symptoms; how to eliminate one problem or another. They have done their best; used their expertise and knowledge; but to date, she continues to suffer from Chronic Post-Concussion Syndrome.
Today marks five years of countless MRI’s; x-rays; CAT-Scans; medicines; vitamins; therapies; exercises. Today marks five years of watching my daughter suffer debilitating headaches; memory losses; hand tremors; visual disturbances; imbalance issues; lost appetite; depression; and unimaginable stress. Today marks five years of having to explain that she does not drink alcohol and that is not why she is falling down or stumbling. Today marks five years of trying to shield her from trigger noises that can render her helpless. Today marks five years of learning which foods and beverages make her symptoms worse. Today marks five years of having to explain to teachers and administrators that she has a disability even if they cannot see it. I think that is the hardest thing of all. An unseen injury on an unseen journey following a traumatic brain injury that friends and family alike have long since forgotten ever occurred. But she can’t forget and neither can we.
There are times that I flash back to the days when she first started playing soccer. Those early days of colored pinnies, tiny cleats, and my daughter running in the opposite direction from the ball because she didn’t want to get dirty when the field was muddy, seem like an eternity ago. I think back to those days when every player rotated positions and I pled with the coach not to put her in the goal because it was too painful to watch her practice gymnastics, sit on the ground, twirl about, and entertain herself rather than pay attention to the game. And then I remember watching her take to the game. She practiced endlessly in the backyard. At the end of the third grade there were tryouts for the travel team. The best players would be chosen. When the call came that she had made the team, her love for the sport grew tenfold. She was ready and willing to train, practice, and give her all every game. I sat through cold winds; nor’easters, sweltering heat, and a myriad of weather to cheer her on. Over the years, I drove thousands of miles between practices, games, and tournaments. I cleared space for the myriad of medals and trophies that accrued and I kept that small scrap of cast that says, “never quit.”
She is still fighting the fight to make it back. This time it isn’t to the field. The hope of that died five years ago. This time the game she is fighting to get back to is the game of life; a life with a day without a headache, a hand tremor, a loss of memory, falling down, feeling depressed, or taking a pill. I do not know where the next turn in the road will lead or what lies over the next rise. The journey remains as unseen today as it did five years ago. I still pray. I still hope. I still believe in miracles. And, I still look up to my daughter as an inspiration because the cross she bears is a heavy one, but even through tears, she has carried it with strength, faith, and a determination that one day she will be able to lay down her burden and be cured.