Part two of a series on the people who have suffered concussions as well as those who treat them. For other stories, click here.
When it’s over, Nathan Savage’s childhood will have been three months shorter than it should have been.
Three months of sitting at home when he should have been at school. Three months of flinching at the slightest noise when he should have been playing soccer. Three months of wondering if he’d ever feel like a kid again while his mother Susan Rohn stood by desperate and helpless.
Three months, gone.
“It was an awful journey,” says Susan. “I was at the point where I thought, ‘well, if he doesn’t come back, he doesn’t come back.'”
They moved to Nelson last September, but were living in Fernie when Nathan suffered his concussion. Then 11 years old, he was playing outside when he slipped on ice and hit his head in January 2015. He felt nauseous, but went to bed without anyone in his family realizing what had happened.
The next day he was hit in the head by a ball at an indoor soccer tournament. Headaches, fatigue and dizziness set in, so Nathan took two days off from school. After two weeks he started feeling better.
Susan shakes her head now looking back on the mistakes they made. Believing he had recovered, Susan let Nathan go swimming with his friends. “Mom, I hit the water and my head exploded,” he said when he returned from the pool.
The final domino fell a day later when Nathan sat down in spinning chair. “He went in it and his sister spun him, and I went running over and stopped it,” says Susan. “But after that he went downhill. That was it.”
That moment began three months of hell in the Rohn home.
Nathan was taken out of school and Susan, a doctor herself but with no prior experience treating concussions, stopped working to take care of him. Along with the previous symptoms, Nathan now also had double vision that meant he couldn’t even draw a picture without feeling sick.
Susan recalls her son being so sensitive to noise that he once complained about the hum of the furnace, which to her was essentially silent.
“I couldn’t drive him to town, which was a two-minute drive,” she says. “He got so sick. He’s a kid, you couldn’t get him to stop moving, and we couldn’t bribe him to go for a walk down the road 25 feet. He just sat on the couch for three months, basically.”
Nathan only started sleeping once he was prescribed melatonin, which is currently the subject of a study by researchers at the University of Calgary hoping to find new treatments for concussed children.
The ordeal was exhausting for Susan, who was constantly working to keep her house quiet and calm for Nathan. That meant also having to stay constantly aware of what her son was up to.
“He kept trying to do what he used to do,” says Susan. “I was like the police officer basically saying you can’t do that. So it was non-stop. His sister kept trying to play with him, and I’m like, ‘Chloe you can’t. You can’t play with him. He’s overstimulated.’ It was hard. The best days were the days where I could send her somewhere else for a playdate so that he could just be quiet and do nothing.”
Chloe, who was 10 at the time, also suffered without her brother. Her teachers told Susan they noticed a change in her during this time. Nathan, meanwhile, was becoming easily irritable, which Susan would use as a sign he was doing too much.
His friends were rarely allowed to visit the home. Nathan had a birthday during his recovery, but his party lasted just an hour and a half and the only person invited was a friend Susan knew was quiet. They played Lego. It was all Nathan could do.
Another day Nathan tried playing ping-pong. Susan recalls watching his eyes dart back and forth.
“He must have been so dizzy,” she says. “He didn’t complain but I could see it in his eyes, they were just shooting all over the place. And even my friend said, ‘look at his eyes.’ They would dilate, too. You could just see the dysregulation of the eyes.”
Susan took Nathan to be assessed at a Calgary children’s hospital, but returned home with no idea of what to do for her son on a daily basis. She found a concussion management guideline developed at McMaster University, printed it off and taped it to her fridge (the guideline can be found at the end of this story).
Every morning the family would refer to the protocol to see where Nathan was at. “Just because of all the mistakes we made, if you don’t have that protocol you’re going to make the same mistakes we made,” she says. “Because it’s inherent in a child’s life that they are active and want to play. Not that adults always do what they should either.”
Nathan finally returned to school in mid-May, albeit for an hour a day for the first two weeks and then just two hours a day for the following two weeks. His school was supportive. He was given an empty class to eat lunches in and his dismissals were staggered so he wasn’t in the hallways with other students, otherwise his symptoms would return.
Susan did her part at home where she would help Nathan with his schooling. It was there he put together a science fair project, but he had to present it at school.
“After he had been in there for an hour I went in to see how he was doing,” says Susan. “He had to stand and present, and he was pale as a ghost. He looked just horrible. I said, ‘Nathan, are you dizzy?’ He said, ‘Yeah mom, I feel like I’m going to faint.’ So I pulled him out of there and I fed him some oranges and gave him some water and I said to the teacher, ‘I think that’s as much as he can do.'”
Nathan is 13 years old now. He is symptom free, except for an incident at school last fall when he became irritable while his class participated in a drum circle.
He has also returned to soccer, which at first terrified Susan. She told him he was forbidden from headers, which was supported by his coaches.
“He was the kid who put it all out on the line before the concussion,” she says. “He was an aggressive, athletic kid. He’s still, in my opinion, a very good player. But there’s a difference in his play. He doesn’t take the risks at all now. He knows.”
The experience has also changed Susan as a doctor. She finds herself asking patients suffering from chronic migraines, depression or insomnia if they’ve had a recent head injury (the answer is usually yes). Last month she forwarded the McMaster concussion guidelines to Pathways, which is a website physicians can access to search for patient resources or referral information.
She also speaks up on the sidelines of Nathan’s games. Her obligation now is to help other parents avoid what she and Nathan went through.
“You just have no idea until you’ve lived through it.”