Concussion recovery after a snowboarding accident tests resiliency

The day started off unremarkable — if just a tad disappointing.

It was late November, three days before Thanksgiving. The mountains had only received a dusting of snow, but I was itching to return to the slopes for the first time since the pandemic shuttered lift lines in early March. So I drove up to Breckenridge, a mountain I had ridden countless times over the past three years.

As I cruised down a tame blue groomer, mind elsewhere, I suddenly toppled over a small rock that poked out from the early-season snow.

A bit rattled, I finished the run. As I went back up the chairlift, I knew something was a bit off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Turns out, I had sustained a concussion.

“Most people feel better in less than a week,” a doctor reassured me two days later.

But one week quickly turned into two. Then a month. Then nearly half a year.

Concussions can impact people in a variety of ways, but my main obstacle became looking at screens. Even 15 minutes on my phone or computer gave me low-grade nausea. It’s like being carsick every time you read an article or watch a TV show. Sounds pleasant, right?

I kept thinking that the next morning it might be better. I’d never dealt with a concussion before, so I had no idea what to expect. As an athlete, I knew plenty of people who had sustained head injuries before and most of them recovered relatively quickly.

So why wasn’t I getting better?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by loss: Loss of lifestyle, loss of family, loss of comfortably seeing friends and loss of going into work.

In a year where the virus made it impossible to live a normal life, I suddenly could do even less. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t watch sports. I couldn’t hike in Colorado’s beautiful outdoors or bike on winding mountain roads. All the activities that helped me cope with a year unlike any other suddenly disappeared.

As the weeks went on, I was forced to reckon with my own fragility in a way I never had before. You always have your health is a phrase I heard all the time, but I never really gave it much thought.

The concussion also made me grapple with one of the most frustrating sentences in life: We don’t know. We don’t know when you’ll be better, numerous doctors told me. We don’t know how long this will last.

Progress from traumatic brain injuries doesn’t always follow a linear path like that of a broken wrist. You have one good day, followed by four bad ones. Sometimes you just have three weeks straight of bad days. I had no evidence that I was getting better, only blind faith that I must be getting better.

Progress was invisible. It was mute. And in the absence of evidence, your brain runs wild: What if I never get better? What if I can’t work again?

But as I battled my inner demons, I also observed another crucial component of the human experience: We learn to adapt.

Since I couldn’t watch shows or read books, I turned to my headphones. I came to appreciate audio books, devouring releases from former president Barack Obama, comedian Trevor Noah and journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

During my normal, hectic life, I rarely took the time to read novels or non-fictions books. But every day during my recovery, I assumed my customary place on the living room couch — sunglasses on even at night, head resting against two pillows — and I just listened for hours.

I immersed myself in Noah’s upbringing in apartheid South Africa and in Tara Westover’s fundamentalist Mormon childhood in rural Idaho. I went deep on the iconic early-2000s Los Angeles Lakers with Kobe and Shaq and learned why hockey players born in January have a distinct advantage at making it to the pros.

I turned to baking and cooking more complex dinners, churning out some darn good chocolate banana bread (if I do say so myself).

It took months to see progress, but finally, in April a new physical therapy started to produce results. Screens slowly transformed from a mortal enemy into an accepting friend. This week, I returned to work for the first time since the Trump administration.

The past six months introduced new loss of function, ability and livelihood. Many days I asked myself: When will this end? I desperately yearned to watch my beloved Celtics or even just ride my bike around Sloan’s Lake on a mild spring day.

But my time on the couch, watching the snow fall and the seasons change, also taught me a valuable lesson in acceptance, and reaffirmed my belief that people are more resilient than they give themselves credit for.

Sam Tabachnik is a reporter for The Denver Post.

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