CON­CUS­SION: Two jour­neys

Head in­juries are all too com­mon­place to­day and the road to re­cov­ery can be long. In fact, it may never end.

Truro Daily News - - Special Feature - BY COREY LEBLANC

Stacked on a nearby cof­fee ta­ble in her liv­ing room sit more than a dozen note­books. They are filled with hand­writ­ten en­tries, re­count­ing mem­o­ries that, more of­ten than not, she can’t re­call.

Pas­sages mark ups and downs in her re­cov­ery, one that con­tin­ues.

“It is as raw as can be,” says Vangie Babin.

With tears welling, she notes she hadn’t read any in more than three years, when she stopped writ­ing them.

“I can’t even do it – it just trig­gers some­thing.”

She closes one and re­places it on the pile.

How we got here

Richelle Ma­claugh­lin was vis­it­ing her mother in Man­i­toba and stopped at a gro­cery store to do some shop­ping.

“It was just so ran­dom,” she said. “The next thing I knew, I was look­ing at the ceil­ing and won­der­ing what had hap­pened.”

Liq­uid de­ter­gent had spilled in an aisle. She slipped.

Bruised, lit­er­ally from head to toe, the Antigo­nish woman made it back to her mother’s apart­ment.

“I was just, pro­gres­sively, not feel­ing great. I was in so much pain and I felt very nau­seous.”

On vis­it­ing a doc­tor, the fo­cus was on her body pain; a head in­jury wasn’t on the radar.

She flew home days later, ac­com­pa­nied by that con­stant nau­sea.

It con­tin­ued for a few weeks, along with a chronic headache. There was vi­sion im­pair­ment and sen­si­tiv­ity to light and noise.

She had no way of know­ing at the time, but all are com­mon con­cus­sion symp­toms.

More than five weeks af­ter the fall, she was di­ag­nosed with a se­vere con­cus­sion, dou­ble whiplash, soft tis­sue dam­age and spinal is­sues.

That’s when Ma­claugh­lin found out a blow to the head isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a fac­tor with con­cus­sions.

In the case of Vangie Babin, there was no mis­tak­ing the cause. She

was skat­ing.

“It was like it was hap­pen­ing in slow mo­tion,” she said.

“They heard the crack of the hel­met on the other end of the ice.”

Like Ma­claugh­lin, she wasn’t think­ing head in­jury, lit­tle know­ing it would be the first of three con­cus­sions.

Days later, at a con­fer­ence, Babin leaned into a ve­hi­cle to greet some­one.

“I whacked my fore­head on the door frame,” she said. That re­cent skat­ing fall had af­fected her depth per­cep­tion.

Later that day, dur­ing a role-play­ing ex­er­cise, what most thought was im­pec­ca­ble act­ing was ac­tu­ally the on­set of symp­toms of a sec­ond con­cus­sion.

“My head started to pound and I was cup­ping my head in my hands. I kept say­ing I couldn’t take it any­more – you need to do some­thing,” Babin re­called.

That Oc­to­ber day, she was di­ag­nosed with a con­cus­sion – in real- ity, her sec­ond.

Months later, in Jan­uary, Babin struck her head while re­mov­ing some­thing from the car.

“I just stood there and cried. I was grate­ful that I was home, but I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘Lord, just put me in a freak­ing bub­ble,’” she said.

Two years later, Ma­claugh­lin de­scribes the af­ter­math of her con­cus­sion as “hor­ri­ble.”

“Scrolling on a com­puter – to this day – still both­ers me,” she said.

In fact, it forced her to leave her desk job.

Then, there was the per­cep­tion peo­ple were judg­ing her. There were com­ments about all the “free time” she was en­joy­ing.

“I didn’t want that. It was re­ally dif­fi­cult, and I strug­gled with that,” she said.

Now, Ma­claugh­lin couldn’t care less about what peo­ple say or think.

Like her, Babin felt judged. That changed.

“Af­ter a while, you don’t care what it looks like,” she said. “You don’t care about what other peo­ple are go­ing to think, you just want to get your life back to, not even where it was, but just some­where where you can func­tion nor­mally.”

Re­lent­less symp­toms

There have been days for both women when they couldn’t get out of bed; the headaches, sen­si­tiv­ity to light and nau­sea, just a few of the lin­ger­ing ef­fects.

Babin’s home of­ten has to be kept in dark­ness.

“I am sure Philippe felt like he was liv­ing in a cave,” Babin said, re­fer­ring to her hus­band.

There were pe­ri­ods of time off work, and the loss of mem­ory.

“Even to this day, my short-term mem­ory – I call it my pro­cess­ing – has changed,” Ma­claugh­lin said.

If she doesn’t write things down she may not re­mem­ber spe­cific parts of a con­ver­sa­tion.

“It is not that I am not tak­ing the in­for­ma­tion in – it is like I am fil­ing it, in a man­ner, for me to re­tain all the in­for­ma­tion. It is just tak­ing more time.”

There can be a strug­gle with words.

“There are a lot of times that I know it – I ei­ther can’t get it or the wrong word will come out,” Babin said.

She came to truly un­der­stand anx­i­ety.

“I knew it, in­tel­lec­tu­ally, but I got it – loudly and clearly – be­cause of all the symp­toms. I wasn’t go­ing out,” she said.

And when mem­ory fails, emo­tions bub­ble over.

Babin re­called a chance encounter with a woman she knew. No mat­ter how hard she tried, she couldn’t re­mem­ber her name.

She was hon­est, not­ing how the con­cus­sion had af­fected her mem­ory. Rather than giv­ing her name, the woman told Babin the let­ter it started with.

“It is not a game – I am no longer in­ter­ested. Just tell some­one your freak­ing name,” she said, anger ris­ing in her voice.

Other senses have also been af­fected, some­times in quirky ways.

“I used to al­ways eat my eggs sunny-side up; I liked them runny so I could dip my toast in them,” Ma­claugh­lin said.

“Now, they gross me out. I gag when some­one has poached or runny eggs.”

Be­fore Babin’s con­cus­sion, con­tact with cit­rus brought on a cold sore. To­day she can en­joy an orange.

“It is like the brain rewired it­self, or some­thing, I don’t know, so I say that’s one of the good things that came out of the con­cus­sions,” she said with a smile.

Ma­claugh­lin must be wary “if I am get­ting close to hit­ting that wall.” When she tires of walk­ing, she be­gins lean­ing to the left. Sit­ting for long pe­ri­ods is out; she can’t travel for more than a few con­sec­u­tive days.

“I had to start cross­ing days out in my plan­ner,” Ma­claugh­lin con­cedes.

“That was very, very hard for me to do. I ac­tu­ally learned how to say ‘no’ and that was huge.”

Richelle Ma­claugh­lin now runs a small business, and “em­braces where I am to­day.”

“I have grown so much be­cause of that head in­jury – it is un­be­liev­able. I have re­ally come to ap­pre­ci­ate my time. I value my health, I value time with others,” she said.

Ma­claugh­lin de­scribed her con­tin­ued in­volve­ment as a Strait Re­gional School Board mem­ber – even if she had to par­tic­i­pate via con­fer­ence call, from her bed­room – as “a life­line.”

It is about find­ing a pas­sion or, at least, ad­just­ing an ex­ist­ing one.

“I was an avid reader – I would devour books, but I can’t read for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time now.” In­stead, she lis­tens to au­dio books.

“It is not that I am not do­ing what I want to do – I am just do­ing it dif­fer­ently now.”

Vangie Babin had to make ad­just­ments with her pas­sion for crafts. Cro­chet­ing hurt her head too much; she started knit­ting. Her first mit­tens were fash­ioned dur­ing those “con­cus­sion days.”

A cou­ple of years ago, she started paint­ing. Her first cre­ation was a dan­de­lion push­ing its way sky­ward through ce­ment.

“That’s what I felt like; you need to fo­cus, you need de­ter­mi­na­tion and you need to keep… have strength, to be able to do that,” Babin said.

COREY LEBLANC – SALTWIRE NET­WORK

Vangie Babin of Lower South River, Antigo­nish County, leafs through one of the jour­nals she penned while on her con­cus­sion jour­ney – one that con­tin­ues af­ter more than seven years.

COREY LEBLANC – SALTWIRE NET­WORK

Richelle Ma­claugh­lin suf­fered a con­cus­sion while vis­it­ing her mother in Man­i­toba.

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