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Head On

Claire Lapat | Highschool Soccer

The ringing in my ears, the feeling as if I’m on a boat rocking on a rough sea, total darkness, pounding headache, and just the immense pressure I felt in my head and face. The periods of blindness became longer and there were times I’d even vomit from the pain and dizziness. All from the simple act of heading a soccer ball. 

I started playing soccer when I was three years old. I loved soccer before I started playing and once I started playing, I fell deeply in love with the game. At three years old we began heading the ball. Despite the ball only being a size three at the time, it was still a questionable coaching move to have children whose heads are disproportionately larger than their weak necks and bodies, heading the ball. I never minded heading. And as I got older, I realized I didn’t have much size, I didn’t have the best skill, but I was the most fearless and pound for pound the toughest player on the field. At a young age I decided that I could and would play through any pain I may experience on the field. 

At only ten years old, I suffered my first of a long list of concussions. We, as a society, were barely talking about concussions in professional athletes in 2009, and we sure weren’t talking about concussions in children. Ever since that concussion, I’ve had a headache every day. Since that concussion, every time I’d head the ball, I saw stars. But feeling so bad for so long became normal, and eventually I started to think that feeling sick after heading a ball was normal. I told myself to toughen up, and never show pain.  

This mentality lead me to play through countless concussions, and to lie to doctors, coaches, and my parents about my symptoms going away. I barely graduated from eighth grade due to a very severe concussion- by that time I was on concussion number six. I missed three months of  school, and was in and out for the rest of the year.  When I was in school, I spent most of my time at the nurse’s office laying in a dark room, sipping ginger-ale.  With that concussion, the neurologist told me that I definitely had a concussion and most likely had a brain bleed. I missed ten months of soccer before lying to my doctor that I was better so he’d allow me to go back to soccer. I missed the high school season my freshman year of high school because I was still unable to play. Thankfully going into my sophomore year, I was ready to play and had played in my club teams winter and spring seasons under my belt as well as summer training.

 I made the varsity team at my high school and I was so excited.  I was also playing Eastern Pennsylvania ODP.  Unfortunately, that was the beginning of the end. Everyday at school practice, we’d run the mile and then we’d head the ball for the rest of the time. The headaches were excruciating. I began taking handfuls of Advil before and during each class. When I walked down the hallway, the sound of pills rattling around in my bag was obvious. Sometimes I’d keep the bottle of 300 pills on my desk during class when the pain was bad. This was the first time since eighth grade I’d have to leave class to throw up. I knew why this was happening, but I never would have admitted that to anyone at the time. I just pushed through school and then go to practice to put myself through more torture. The hits to the head began severely impacting my sleep. Some nights I couldn’t fall or stay asleep and other nights I’d just pass out. I stopped  having dreams. Still to this day, I haven’t had a dream. Schoolwork became so much harder and everything took much more effort than at once was necessary. 

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Once the season ended, my neurologist put me on a barbiturate to try to help with pain and sleep. It did nothing to touch those issues. I continued playing though with my club team, and I continued heading the ball. That winter soccer season alone, I sustained three concussions. I knew we were at the end of my career, and I played that spring season until I broke my hip running track. My soccer had been at the top of its game and then to have a non-soccer injury take me out, I was devastated. But my hip was the least of my worries.

My neurologist told me I’d never be able to play soccer again. I was so foggy that didn’t remember and then months later my mom had to tell me. That summer, August 2015, I sustained a horrific concussion at overnight camp of all places. That concussion was the straw that bike the camels back and I ended up missing my entire junior year of high school. I deferred and transferred schools. I was able to channel my athleticism and  competitive nature into cross country. 

My concussions taught me who my real friends are. They’ve brought me closer to my immediate family. I learned that I can handle anything life throws at me. I’ve had a total of fourteen broken bones, over twenty concussions, two brain bleeds, and a skull fracture. I’ve dealt with every symptom post concussion in the book and then some. I can’t remember a moment I was pain free since 2009. I watched my friends graduate a full year ahead. I questioned my self worth may times. My coach called me a sociopath due to my ability to ignore pain; I’m not a sociopath, I just want to be the best I can be, always. I’m now a student at the University of Pittsburgh as a neuroscience major with minors in chemistry and applied statistics on the premed track. 

Headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fogginess, double vision, vision loss with exercise, autonomic dysfunction, ADHD, light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, anxiety, depression, irritability, tremors, nystagmus, seizures, episodes of narcolepsy, confusion, memory issues, tinnitus, cranial nerve palsy, and sleep disturbances.

These are symptoms that I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life. I’ve stopped responding to all the therapies out there. I’ve been on over thirty medications. I’ve seen a plethora of doctors. I’m still in the care of Dr. Steven Stache at the Rothman Institute in Philadelphia. He’s been amazing and he has done so much for me.  I check in with him whenever I’m home from school and I have his number saved in my favorites on my phone and I can call him at any time about anything whether it be a legitimate problem, I need my medications refilled, or I’ve done something stupid (like powder puff football).  I’m now trying to live my life as normally as possible, trying really hard not to hit my head, despite the constant concussion symptoms. According to all the latest concussion research out there, that’s what’s best for me at this point.  And honestly, after a missed year of school and multiple hospitalizations, I’m glad to finally try to have a “normal” life.  

Concussions are elusive and invisible. Every concussion is different even in the same person. My first concussion caused me to sleep all the time and I was always super hard to wake. With my concussions 6 and on, my sleep was non existent. There was a time I was hospitalized after nine sleepless nights. My body was shutting down. I was in a ketamine induced coma in the ICU for three nights.  

When the doctor first told me the news, I was so foggy that I barely even understood what he said.  Around Thanksgiving of 2015, I realized the extent of the damage I had done and I understood that I would never play soccer again.  It felt like I had lost a piece of myself.  Something that was a part of my life forever was ripped away.  I had been getting interest from Navy and it became my goal to play soccer there and then go on to be the first female Navy SEAL. Once soccer was gone, so was that dream. 

I urge everyone to take concussions seriously. Speak up for a teammate you may think has a concussion. You may save their life. I suffered second impact syndrome and I’m incredibly lucky not to be permanently disabled or dead. Soccer was an amazing time in my life but now I’ve found a passion in helping though with PCS. Remember that symptoms can take a while to appear. Look for the good. There are always people to talk to about everything. 

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