In March 2007, Kara traveled with her softball team to play a few games in Fort Meyers, Florida during spring break. She was a freshman attending Bowdoin College in Maine. In her first game on the mound, pitching for the Polar Bears, Kara threw a screwball. The batter smacked the ball straight up the middle.
Though her reflexes were quick, it was one of those times when she couldn’t get her glove up fast enough to protect herself from the blow. The ball hit Kara on the forehead with full force and knocked her out cold.
The dad of one of her teammates was an EMT and rushed to the mound to help her, along with her coach and athletic trainer. When she came to again, they were concerned. Kara walked off the mound with a bloody nose, but was soon rushed to the hospital by ambulance.
As luck would have it, her own dad was attending a conference in St. Petersburg. He was able to drive down to Fort Meyers and meet her at the hospital. A CAT scan was performed which showed nothing. But Kara had something more than a run-of-the-mill concussion, which she was diagnosed with that night.
Father and daughter checked into a hotel after she was released. Her dad woke Kara up every hour on the hour, as the doctor had ordered. She didn’t remember getting hit by the ball. She thought she was fine. The doctor even cleared her to play. At the next game, her coach said, “Kara, I can’t let you do that – I saw what happened to you. There’s no way you can play. There’s something wrong with you.”
Instead, he put her in charge of the scorebook. “No one could understand what I wrote. My notes were completely illiterate that day,” Kara recalled, “And I couldn’t follow the game. I kept asking my teammates for strikes and fouls and pitch count. And they kept looking at me and asking ‘Are you okay?’”
After those games, her behavior was just as uncharacteristic for a Polar Bear who just came out of winter hibernation. Kara had no desire to bask out in the sun. She didn’t want to talk because she couldn’t follow conversations. And all she wanted to do was sleep after the team dinners. Yet she thought she was fine.
A week later, the trainers at Bowdoin gave her a 20-minute treadmill test to see if she was ready to play again. Like a trooper, she got through the test, but then she felt like a frat boy who just indulged in too much of a keg. She collapsed by the pool, felt extremely nauseous and thought she might pass out. “That’s when I realized how hurt I was…I took a plane home to Massachusetts,” she recalled, “My dad picked me up at the airport and drove me home right away.”
She stayed home for a few days and tried to enjoy Easter with her family. Kara still couldn’t follow conversations and had an overwhelming desire to sleep. When she returned to school, it took all her energy to walk to class. She took breaks on the way and felt sick. By the time she got there, she was too tired to hold her head up. She gave up on walking to the dining hall. Her friends brought her food to the dorm. Kara became completely reclusive. Noise gave her headaches. She couldn’t even watch television.
Even the smallest decisions became difficult for her. “I didn’t know when to shower or when to eat. I didn’t know how to plan my day,” Kara explained, “Which was weird because I’m a really big planner. I’d call my mom and ask, ‘Should I shower?’ And she’d answer, ‘Kara, what’s wrong with you?’” It turned out that Kara had a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Her coaches and school administrators recommended she take the rest of the semester off to get the treatment she needed.
Instead of taking finals, she spent the rest of the spring and summer taking neuropsych and hearing exams. She took a part-time job over the summer, but even that proved to be difficult. Kara had to re-learn how to do a lot of things.
When she returned to school in the fall, it became apparent she still wasn’t as sharp as before. She started out with four classes, but her neurologist suggested that she drop two of them. One was a classical music class. Kara had a tough time following the music and processing what she was hearing. “I couldn’t multi-task at all,” Kara admitted.
She saw a speech pathologist regularly in September who guided her through the process of becoming a student athlete again. Kara re-learned how to take notes – only writing what she absolutely needed to know later. She learned how to regroup if she lost her concentration in the middle of a lecture.
Kara was also plagued with nightly nightmares until January. If she was lucky, she got five hours of sleep. Some nights, she didn’t sleep at all. It’s a common frustration that goes with TBI.
A year later, Kara was finally starting to feel like herself again. She took a full course load and played with her team again. She even won her first three games on the mound.
Yet she still deals with the lingering affects of her TBI. She’s always been a consummate planner, but her to-do list today looks a tad different than the average person’s. She writes down the basic tasks to complete each day. And since she’s making up for lost time at school, each day is packed:
5:30-7:30 Workout a the gym
7:30-8:00 Breakfast and shower
5:00 – Dinner
5:45-10:00 p.m. Summer school (Statistics and Chemistry) – plus an hour round-trip commute
10:30 – Homework, then bed
Like so many comebacks, Kara’s is more than physical. It’s mental. And it’s life changing. “With my head injury, I’ve decided to go into neuroscience,” she said with more than just a hint of enthusiasm, “I realize I have it a lot better off than a lot of people, so I’m not complaining. The brain is fascinating to me now.”
NOTE: If you have a good comeback story, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to interview you. I hope this will be one of many Comeback Kid stories. Here’s why.