Part three of a series on the people who have suffered concussions as well as those who treat them. For other stories, click here.
Her mistake was going to the party.
Rugby players from L.V. Rogers’ teams were gathering to celebrate after competing in Castlegar and Rochelle Pearson insisted on going. But once she was there, all she wanted to do was leave.
“It was terrible,” she says. “I remember sitting in my friend’s car just waiting to go home. My head was pounding, everything was super loud and really obnoxious. … It was too much, just too much stimulation.”
Earlier in the day, Pearson had been tackled by three opposing players. She went to the sidelines angry, not realizing at the time she had just played her last high school rugby game.
That was May 2015. The next year of Pearson’s life was defined by headaches, memory loss and a daily struggle at school.
“I would never wish a concussion on anyone,” she says. “It was the worst experience of my life. It ended everything. I couldn’t be on my phone, couldn’t watch TV, couldn’t walk alone. I couldn’t do anything.”
Trilby Buck was on the sidelines working as an assistant coach when Pearson was hit. Buck checked her over and knew right away Pearson was concussed.
Buck would know. A former LVR player herself, Buck has had four concussions since 2013 and was at the time of Pearson’s hit still recovering from her most recent one. Her heart broke for Pearson, but she wasn’t surprised to learn Pearson went drinking after the injury instead of returning home to rest. It’s a mistake Buck already made herself.
“They just don’t want to accept it,” says Buck. “They don’t want to accept that they’re hurt and they don’t accept that that means they are now limited in what they can do, how much fun they can have and it’s going to significantly impact their life. And that’s a scary thing. I understand why they don’t want to do it.
“I’m so sorry that this has happened to her.”
Pearson missed one day of school and only went to an emergency room three days after the injury. But she’d never had a baseline test, and the ER doctors could only tell her what she already knew was happening.
School became a chore. Pearson had difficulty remembering things like bringing a binder to class or upcoming tests. One teacher suggested she wear sunglasses when Pearson complained about not being to look at a computer screen.
“I got more irritable and couldn’t stand being around people,” she says. “You have to be alone. The best time was when I got home and all the lights were shut off, the blinds were shut and I was in the dark.”
The worst part, though, was not being able to be an athlete anymore. Pearson had planned to play basketball, hockey and rugby during her Grade 12 year. Instead she was told to stay on the sidelines by Dr. Sharisse Kyle, a physician with Kootenay Boundary Division of Family Practice who specializes in concussions.
“That was a really hard moment for me,” says Pearson, who graduated in June. “It was really sad. I went home and cried. Rugby was a big part of my life for a year and everything just stopped.”
Pearson’s ordeal lasted a year. Buck’s struggle went on for nearly three.
Buck graduated from LVR in 2013 and enrolled in geography and environmental studies at University of Victoria. She also signed up to play rugby. In November of that year she hit her head on the ground in her first game with the Vikes.
She felt dizzy but didn’t understand what was happening and decided not to tell the team’s trainer. Buck went a couple weeks before finally getting examined, and in the meantime she went to lectures with a hoodie that could be tightened around her face to help her focus.
She was cleared to play after Christmas but in retrospect doesn’t think she should have been — it wasn’t until two months later that her symptoms went away.
Her second concussion, coincidentally, happened almost a year to the day of the first one. Buck was practising with the Vikes when she turned at the wrong moment and gave herself whiplash. No contact occurred, but she knew she’d been concussed right away.
This time it was worse. The symptoms intensified and affected her sight.
“The only way I can explain it — it’s like watching a movie,” she says. “You can only focus on what’s in the foreground, [and] everything else is blurred out. You can focus on more than one thing at a time. But a lot of people don’t take it seriously unless you get headaches, which I really didn’t get until one of my more recent ones.”
The second concussion lingered for months and was followed by yet another in March 2015. Now playing for the Velox Valkyries club team, Buck went to tackle a player at the same time as her teammate when their faces smashed together.
Buck had to be convinced to leave the field.
“I was so adamant, I don’t know why, I was so adamant that it was not a concussion. I was in denial, absolute denial. ‘It’s definitely not. I’m definitely fine.'”
She started making mistakes of her own. She went drinking, which she says now drew out her recovery by several months. The hit came just prior to exam season and, with few people on campus, Buck started to feel isolated and depressed but never sought out counselling.
She also wasn’t ready to give up rugby.
“I wasn’t ready to let go of being a varsity athlete. I wasn’t ready to let go of my team,” she says. “I wasn’t ready to let go of the status it provided and the training and all the progress that I’d made.
“Because I’d had so many injuries, I’d been robbed of so much game time. I really felt like I’d been training so hard and pushing so hard to be on this team, and just injury after injury kept on happening, and I had to have my turn. I had to have my turn. I couldn’t just quit and be like, ‘Oh well, I had an injury so it’s not worth playing now.’ I needed to have some sort of mark of my progress as an athlete because I’d put a lot into it.”
Buck thought she would be fine in a week. The concussion lasted five months.
Her fourth and most recent concussion occurred in April. No longer playing, Buck took up coaching rugby for a Victoria high school. During a practice an errant pass hit her jaw and put her back on the sidelines. “Every time you get a concussion it’s easier to get another one,” she says. “At this point my head is an egg, a shaken egg.”
The concussion led to what Buck called “instant depression,” but for the first time she immediately sought treatment and put everything in her life on hold to rest. She was recovered within two weeks.
Buck says she’s in a good place now. A change of scenery has helped. She’s working in southern Saskatchewan fighting wildfires. The job requires regular training, but she hasn’t had any symptoms since she started.
“It’s been really good to be here and be on my own, just trying to sort through a lot of shit that I haven’t let myself have time to sort through. … Now I’m just finally sitting down and figuring it out and it’s been so good.”
She doesn’t worry about what the effect of her concussions will have long term. Instead, her focus is on day-to-day activities and being proactive about her health. Has she eaten today? Has she slept? Could she get hurt if she goes out? Buck is still just 20 years old, but now has to care for her body as though she were much, much older.
“It makes you grow up too fast. I still want to be young and stupid.”