Untreated Head Injuries and the Hell They Cause

In February 2018, I was vacationing alone in Mexico when I was involved in a traumatic accident. While chatting with another tourist on top of a bench-like rock, I was suddenly pushed off the seawall by a drunk student and plummeted head first approximately 10 feet to the hot sand. Though the accident left me physically, emotionally and mentally scarred, had I landed on anything other than sand, I may not have walked away as well as I did—or even at all.

          Picture of the seawall and the rocks I had been sitting on

Since I do not remember the incident, I have had to piece together bits of the story that I was told afterwards by witnesses. Essentially, since the wall was slanted, I rolled and scraped the majority of my body on the rocks before going head first into the sand. When I came to, the paramedics were putting a neck guard on me and determining whether I was paralyzed or not; thankfully, I was not. Due to the paramedics speaking primarily Spanish, I was left feeling extremely disoriented about the entire situation. I was hoisted into a wheelchair and my superficial wounds were treated and bandaged. The only medical advice I was given after was to keep taking Advil around the clock and to have my bandages changed when needed. There were never questions as to how my head was feeling, or if I had suffered from any prior traumatic head injuries such as similar falls or previous concussions despite the fact that if I had, it would make me much more susceptible to reinjury.

          I was not given crutches or anything to help my mobility and fell a second time that week due to balance issues

When I arrived home, I was struggling to walk on my legs and my parents were the first to notice how swollen they had gotten since they dropped me off at the airport one week before. As the days went on, the state of my legs only got more and more concerning. When they suddenly became purple, gray and cold, I went to urgent care and saw my first round of doctors. After explaining the situation to them, my head was once again never called into question despite complaining of persistent back and neck pain and an evident loss of consciousness at the scene. I had three doctors look at my legs and was sent home and instructed not to walk and to continue taking lots of Advil.

          The day I left for Mexico versus the day I came home

The next day, I was walking to my class when I lost feeling in both of my legs. I immediately called my dad and was rushed to University Hospital. At the hospital, I was seen by three more doctors and was subjected to temperature tests, elevation tests, and blood work for my legs. They, too, did not look into the possibility of a head injury. I was sent home with no diagnosis and no medication and told to only come back if it got worse.

          Picture of my legs taken at the hospital

A couple days after going to the hospital, I was able to secure an emergency appointment with my family physician and, over a week and a half later, someone finally asked me about my head. At the time, the symptoms were seemingly non-existent but, knowing that I played hockey all my life, she was especially concerned with the number of prior concussions I had experienced as they would make me more vulnerable to head injuries in general. While she too, was unsure about why my legs were discoloured, I was prescribed a steroid cream for my legs to help alleviate some of the pain and, within a week, I was able to stop taking Advil every few hours.

However, after stopping my consistent Advil regimen for the first time in weeks, I suddenly began to wake up in the middle of the night to severe panic attacks. I would dream that I was falling all over again and be unable to return to sleep. As the days went on, it became evident that the Advil had been masking a lot of unknown symptoms such as headaches and extreme neck pain. I had questioned whether I had a concussion while I was in Mexico as I often had dizzy spells and balance issues; however, something I never expected to experience almost a month after coming home were the secondary PTSD symptoms that followed. As my sleeping patterns continued to be restless and my anxiety heightened, I knew that I had no other option but to go back to the doctors.

Due to both my concussion related symptoms such as my headaches and physical pain and my PTSD related problems such as my inability to sleep showing up later than usual, it was hard to convince a doctor to test my mental well-being since it was now almost six weeks after the accident occured. While PTSD can take months or even years to present itself after an accident, it was clear that my concussion was masked by the Advil. After seeing an after-hours doctor at my family’s clinic, he recognized that I was struggling mentally and signed a school medical contract stating I was severely ill and needed further examination and accommodations in school. My university, however, was even harder to convince. Despite providing the school with multiple doctor’s notes, it felt as though because my injuries were not visible to the eye, they were being seen as non-existent. I was declined twice for my request for accommodations due to “inadequate supporting proof” that I had been in an accident and due to “the timing of my concerns”. This forced me to add the stress of appealing the school’s decisions to my already full plate. I quickly fell behind in all of my classes as my lack of sleep and general exhaustion began to extremely hinder my ability to concentrate.

After finally being able to see my family physician again at the beginning of April, I was at last tested and, rightfully so, diagnosed with a concussion and secondary PTSD symptoms including nightmares and excessive fear. This diagnosis came almost two months after the accident and after at least one month of living with an undiagnosed concussion leaving me with constant debilitating headaches and pain. Plus, even though I had complained of back pain each time I saw a new doctor, it wasn’t until last week it became evident that I may have an untreated neck injury as well.

During my almost one hour appointment with my doctor, I became aware that mental illnesses can contribute to the intensity of a head injury, and learned that concussions are a biochemically based injury rather than a physical injury. Additionally, I found out that returning to school and work too quickly can actually prolong the healing process. As she disclosed more and more information about traumatic head injuries, it became evident to me that I had not received an adequate assessment until this time.

Now, as the days pass and exams draw closer, I have not only had to adopt a new treatment plan, appeal to the associate dean, and attempt to finish my school work, but I have also had to come to terms with the idea that this accident has changed me permanently. I long for the days I was able to concentrate for longer than a few minutes without a mind-busting headache setting in, or for when I was able to sleep through the night without waking up in tears. While in my heart I know it was just an accident, my soul wants to rage at not only the man who pushed me off, but also at the numerous doctors who failed to recognize or even warn me of the possibility of a head injury.

When I first came home and explained the story to people, I admittedly shrugged the accident off. Looking back, it’s clear that I was a victim of a traumatic accident and that if I had not been more diligent about researching my symptoms and pushing my doctor to test me, both my mental and physical injuries may never have been diagnosed.

Since having to advocate for my own health, mental injuries/disorders such as concussions and PTSD are now something I will continue to fight for. An injury should not have to be seen in order to be considered legitimate. My legs were purple for a month and I walked with a limp, but my head injuries felt ten times worse. It’s time that employers, educators and health providers recognize the damaging effects an untreated head injury can have on a person and make appropriate accommodations for them. Our brains make us who we are and therefore, mental injuries are just as—if not more—deserving of the same attention as those that are physical.


If you’re interested in reading more information about the symptoms, treatment and available support for concussions or PTSD, you can click the links below!

Concussions: https://www.healthline.com/health/concussion

PTSD: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml

Supports from the Ontario Brain Injury Association: http://obia.ca/support/

PTSD Association of Canada: http://www.ptsdassociation.com/

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