CHOOS­ING TO THRIVE

Mikaila Em­rich shows courage on long road back from con­cus­sions

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - BY LYNN HADDRALL PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY ALISHA TOWNSEND

Mikaila Em­rich shows courage af­ter con­cus­sions

Mikaila Em­rich posts beau­ti­ful pho­to­graphs to In­sta­gram that may in­spire you to ex­er­cise more, eat health­ier and stress less. To the im­ages she adds well­ness tips and advice. Her ac­count – @my­fit­mik – tells the story of a strong young wo­man. It just hints at the chal­lenges she has over­come.

Em­rich, of Cam­bridge, was in a bad car crash as a child. The fam­ily ve­hi­cle was T-boned; she was a pas­sen­ger rest­ing her head against the door. The col­li­sion ripped the door right off. She seemed fine, ex­cept for whiplash. Fam­ily mem­bers were thank­ful ev­ery­one sur­vived.

But the Grade 3 stu­dent wasn’t fine. A con­cus­sion went un­di­ag­nosed. “That was the first one,” she says. Sadly it wasn’t the last. She suf­fered five more con­cus­sions, rang­ing from falls in fig­ure skat­ing and a soccer in­jury to be­ing jos­tled in a crowd.

“I’m 5’3” so I’m per­fect el­bow height. That’s how I sus­tained the last one, just a fluke el­bow to the back of the head in a crowd. It can be that sim­ple,” says Em­rich, now 22. “Af­ter the first con­cus­sion, you be­come much more sus­cep­ti­ble to them.”

Her early con­cus­sions went un­di­ag­nosed at a time when lit­tle was known about head in­juries. It wasn’t un­til the third in­ci­dent that a con­cus­sion was even­tu­ally iden­ti­fied. Em­rich took a ball to the head in the dying min­utes of a rep soccer game. There was no head-in­jury pro­to­col; coaches en­cour­aged her to stay on the field.

“I don’t blame them. There was no one who knew about this at that time. There was no re­search,” she says. “So, I con­tin­ued to play. The next day at school, it was quite scary. I for­got how to add in my math class. My teacher sent me to the of­fice and at that point I couldn’t re­mem­ber my phone num­ber and I also couldn’t re­mem­ber what grade I was in.”

Em­rich’s fam­ily rushed the Grade 8 stu­dent to McMaster Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal in Hamil­ton be­cause of the hospi­tal’s ex­per­tise with youth and head in­juries.

Her par­ents also pulled her from soccer.

Since that day, Em­rich has de­vised ways to deal with post-con­cus­sion syn­drome. She fo­cuses on stay­ing phys­i­cally fit through daily gym ses­sions, eat­ing a healthy diet and hav­ing a pos­i­tive men­tal at­ti­tude.

It hasn’t been easy. But she’s a fighter and now she wants to help oth­ers.

“It’s a phys­i­cal in­jury, but it’s not some­thing that

you can see. If we were to pass on the street, prob­a­bly no one would have any idea and yet I come home from school and there are parts of it that still need reg­u­lar main­te­nance.”

Em­rich has ad­justed her life­style to help re­cover. She missed a se­mes­ter of school, gave up on sports such as soccer and fig­ure skat­ing, and found ways to cope – wear­ing sun­glasses in­doors, for ex­am­ple. She pre­pares a lot of her own food and feels eat­ing well is vi­tally im­por­tant for her re­cov­ery.

“I re­ally did an over­haul of my nutri­tion be­cause of the en­tire gut-to-brain re­la­tion­ship; there is a lot of re­search on spe­cific nu­tri­ents af­fect­ing cog­ni­tive abil­ity and cog­ni­tive func­tion.”

With help from the Water­loo Re­gion Small Busi­ness Cen­tre, she even ran her own small busi­ness one sum­mer. Bare Ne­ces­si­ties Bak­ing spe­cial­ized in pa­leo muffins.

Noise, light and nearby move­ment can be a chal­lenge. So it sur­prised her fam­ily when Em­rich chose to com­pete in the Miss Ok­to­ber­fest con­test last fall.

“At first, when she told us, we re­ally won­dered if that was such a good idea,” re­calls her mother, Heide. “You know – loud noise, lots of peo­ple, lots of lights. All of that is Ok­to­ber­fest, so we were hes­i­tant. But when Mikaila puts her mind to some­thing, she fol­lows her pas­sion and her goals and her dreams and for that I’m re­ally proud.”

Mikaila knew her fam­ily was con­cerned, but she felt the tim­ing was right.

“While my fam­ily’s con­cerns were com­ing from a place of love and care, I knew I had to try; that’s how you grow. I didn’t want my con­cus­sion to hin­der me from do­ing every­thing that I know I’m ca­pa­ble of do­ing in this life. I kept go­ing back to that and I said ‘No, I have to try.’ ”

Em­rich won the com­pe­ti­tion to be­come the 49th Miss Ok­to­ber­fest. She has used her role to share her story of re­cov­ery, a jour­ney that is on­go­ing. She main­tains so­cial media sites to con­nect with peo­ple. She puts healthy living tips on her In­sta­gram site and in­cludes a “brain gain” fea­ture with tips to chal­lenge your mind. Her YouTube chan­nel show­cases healthy eat­ing habits and recipes.

Em­rich wants more peo­ple to un­der­stand con­cus­sions and the treat­ment that leads back to a nor­mal life.

“Now, es­pe­cially, there’s so much re­search com­ing out about con­cus­sions. I re­mem­ber ini­tially when I had first sus­tained the first cou­ple, there was ab­so­lutely noth­ing,” she says.

Her mother wishes peo­ple had known more when her daugh­ter suf­fered her first con­cus­sion.

“I wish that I could take away all of the con­cus­sions and every­thing, but it’s made her who she is and that’s ac­tu­ally a re­ally pos­i­tive thing, who she is,” Heide says.

Robyn Ibey, a sports/or­tho­pe­dic phys­io­ther­a­pist at the Water­loo Sports Medicine Cen­tre, says Em­rich’s story is not un­com­mon.

“There was not the level of aware­ness then that we have now about how se­ri­ous this in­jury was,” Ibey says. “We now know that it is a brain in­jury and peo­ple are bet­ter at rec­og­niz­ing the signs and symp­toms and seek­ing med­i­cal at­ten­tion. So I would say that things have im­proved greatly over the past 10 to 15 years.’’

She re­calls that it was com­mon a decade ago for some­one who had a head in­jury to be told: you just got your bell rung. Pick your­self up and keep go­ing. That’s chang­ing with head-in­jury pro­to­cols for sports teams, and more re­sources for par­ents, says Ibey,

who re­ceived her doc­tor­ate in neu­ro­science at the Univer­sity of Water­loo and lec­tures there. She also worked with the Ju­nior B Strat­ford Cul­li­tons hockey team for a cou­ple of years.

Ibey un­der­stands the chal­lenges in part be­cause she too sus­tained a con­cus­sion that went un­di­ag­nosed. It hap­pened while she was danc­ing on a slip­pery floor dur­ing Ok­to­ber­fest.

“A cou­ple years into my PhD, I had a re­ally horrible con­cus­sion. I ended up hav­ing post-con­cus­sion syn­drome for four to five years. It de­layed me fin­ish­ing my PhD. So I treated con­cus­sions be­fore I had a con­cus­sion,” she says.

“The way that I treat and man­age con­cus­sions has changed a lot be­cause of my own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. I have made a com­plete re­cov­ery, but I think there’s some­thing to be said for some­one who has ex­pe­ri­enced the same type of in­jury.”

Al­though peo­ple typ­i­cally as­so­ciate con­cus­sions with sports in­juries, many oc­cur far from a play­ing field. It’s im­por­tant to seek med­i­cal at­ten­tion and for­mu­late a re­cov­ery plan that goes deeper than the old advice: rest in a dark room and hope that your symp­toms go away.

“Peo­ple are much more proac­tive with this in­jury, seek­ing out dif­fer­ent treat­ment cour­ses. But it’s a multi-fac­to­rial in­jury, and it’s im­por­tant to see some­one that has knowl­edge in this area who can iden­tify what course of treat­ment is needed for the in­di­vid­ual,” Ibey says.

Treat­ment could in­volve a wide range of spe­cial­ists such as fam­ily doc­tors, phys­io­ther­a­pists, op­tometrists, chi­ro­prac­tors, nu­tri­tion­ists and oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pists. Ibey rec­om­mends online re­sources such as the Sport Con­cus­sion As­sess­ment Tool (SCAT5) at bjsm.bmj.com and the brain in­jury/con­cus­sion sec­tion at can­child.ca.

Ibey’s advice to any­one with a head in­jury is to seek im­me­di­ate med­i­cal at­ten­tion be­cause one of the worst things you can do is con­tinue the ac­tiv­ity right af­ter it hap­pens.

Em­rich’s re­cov­ery advice is also clear – do your re­search and keep a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude.

One of her suc­cess­ful ac­tiv­i­ties has been a daily grat­i­tude jour­nal.

“I write three things that I’m grate­ful for; it’s funny to look back at them. I was 18 when I started and now I’m 22. It’s crazy be­cause you look back and that’s a lot of things to be grate­ful for ev­ery day. It re­ally adds up.”

Em­rich fo­cuses on “in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion,” rather than striv­ing to meet goals set by oth­ers. If you fall down once, twice or six times, think of it as fuel to get back up. As an ex­am­ple, she points to a per­sonal achievement. There was a time she strug­gled just to walk through a busy gro­cery store. But even­tu­ally she scaled the heights of Gros Morne moun­tain in New­found­land.

“I was phys­i­cally able to do that and share that ex­pe­ri­ence with my fam­ily. I trained with 30-sec­ond in­cre­ments of walk­ing ev­ery day. Some­times it was me ly­ing in bed for the rest of the day, tak­ing mul­ti­ple naps be­cause af­ter 30 sec­onds I was wiped.”

Re­cov­ery can be dif­fi­cult for ev­ery­one. Em­rich missed two Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions and half her fam­ily events while strug­gling phys­i­cally. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s hard on the whole fam­ily when some­body is suf­fer­ing,” says her mother.

Fam­ily love and sup­port helped Em­rich re­cover. She has a strong bond with her brother, Alex, who is at­tend­ing Fan­shawe Col­lege in Lon­don to fol­low his pas­sion for music. They grew up par­tic­i­pat­ing in Ok­to­ber­fest events – she was Miss Tran­syl­va­nia in 2016 and he presided over the dance group. They toured Aus­tria and Germany per­form­ing, the ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time. Now they chat online reg­u­larly.

“He is younger than me by two years and he’s a huge in­spi­ra­tion for me in terms of that in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion. He’s prob­a­bly one of the wis­est peo­ple I know. I’m so proud that he is do­ing some­thing that he re­ally loves and so that is an in­flu­ence on me.”

Em­rich praises the Miss Ok­to­ber­fest pro­gram for fo­cus­ing on a com­mu­nity role where “you bring your own value propo­si­tion and make the role what­ever you are specif­i­cally passionate about – and that’s cel­e­brated.”

“We’re ap­proach­ing the 50th an­niver­sary this year. I’m su­per ex­cited be­cause it’s a great learn­ing op­por­tu­nity and the fes­ti­val’s go­ing through a lot of in­no­va­tion right now, so it all aligns very nicely and it’s a great way for me to learn.”

This fall her of­fi­cial duties as the reign­ing Miss Ok­to­ber­fest will end. Her work to ed­u­cate oth­ers about con­cus­sions will con­tinue. “For the long­est time I didn’t know why this hap­pened to me, but I hon­estly think every­thing hap­pens for a rea­son.”

Per­se­ver­ing is im­por­tant. “When you’re down and you’re face down and it seems dif­fi­cult, you can ei­ther stay down or view it as a chance or an op­por­tu­nity to just rise up stronger, men­tally and phys­i­cally.”

Em­rich’s first In­sta­gram post about her con­cus­sion drew re­sponses from 49 peo­ple around the world. “Peo­ple were say­ing, ‘Wow, I had no idea, but I have gone through this and I’m ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the same thing.’ ” Al­most 4,000 peo­ple now fol­low her on In­sta­gram.

This spring, Em­rich proudly grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Guelph with a de­gree in mar­ket­ing. Her fu­ture as­pi­ra­tions are broad and might in­clude un­der­tak­ing a Ted Talk or writ­ing a book. As life has chal­lenged her, she has re­sponded by em­brac­ing the chal­lenge and seek­ing out more. That won’t change.

“I find such joy in con­sis­tently chal­leng­ing my mind. There is lit­er­ally some­thing to learn ev­ery day; life is ex­cit­ing, and it is great to be cu­ri­ous.”

Miss Ok­to­ber­fest Mikaila Em­rich proudly poses with her sup­port­ive par­ents, Mike and Heide, and brother, Alex.

Robyn Ibey, a sports/or­tho­pe­dic phys­io­ther­a­pist at the Water­loo Sports Medicine Cen­tre, is a con­cus­sion ex­pert who has ex­pe­ri­enced the in­jury first-hand.

Head­ing to the gym for daily work­outs helps Mikaila Em­rich deal with post-con­cus­sion syn­drome.

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