Cenotaph in Ottawa

It’s Not Just a Concussion

It’s Not Just a Concussion

Eighteen-year-old Connor O’Callaghan lay unconscious on the side of Rideau River Road in North Grenville.

He had overdosed on cocaine.

His body was essentially lifeless, except for thud of his heart that was still beating inside his chest.

His friends had dumped him at the side of the road while he was foaming at the mouth, thinking that he was going to die.

Just a few years earlier Connor was the MVP of his hockey team. He was a model student at St. Michael Catholic High School in Kemptville and wouldn’t touch alcohol or even try a cigarette. He was on his way to becoming a decorated athlete.

So, what happened?

What changed in Connor’s life that lead him to that day when he was found on the side of a country road, left for dead?

Connor O’Callaghan

It happened in a split second, with a simple blow to the head. Connor suffered his first concussion in January 2015, playing basketball for St. Mike’s.

He was a fifteen-year old sports fanatic, often juggling multiple sports at once.

After an assessment by a doctor he was cleared to go back to playing sports, and while he didn’t return to basketball he continued to play hockey.

Just one month later Connor had his second concussion while on the ice.

“I wanted him to stop for a year to heal after his second concussion,” said his mother, Lyn O’Callaghan. “But everyone was telling me I was just being a paranoid mom.”

Two weeks after the doctors cleared him to go back to hockey, Connor was hit in the head again, causing another concussion. “He had three concussions in six weeks,” Lyn said. “Every time you have a concussion, if they are close together, they multiply.”

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head.

Dr. Kristian Goulet, the medical director at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s (CHEO) concussion clinic, indicated there are between 1.6 to 3.8 million sports-related concussions each year in North America. The true number is not known because approximately 80 per cent of individuals can not adequately identify a concussion.

The classic symptoms of a concussion are headache, confusion and amnesia, often without a loss of consciousness.

Symptoms can be subtle and might not appear until many hours after impact. Multiple concussions can lead to significant long-term impairment, said Dr. Goulet.

By March 2015, Lyn said they knew something was seriously wrong with Connor.

He was having anger issues, anxiety, rage outbursts, problems sleeping, sensitivity to light and noise and was suffering daily headaches.

While Connor had stopped playing basketball and hockey, his neurologist suggested that he continue to play baseball which was considered low risk for head trauma. As an athlete, the neurologist thought it would be worse for him psychologically if he didn’t pay some sort of sport.

Connor was playing baseball at a high level, as a 15-year-old on a Triple A team based out of Toronto filled with 18-year-olds.

At batting practice one day Connor was hit in the head by accident with a baseball bat. He had more than 20 stiches to repair the damage and suffered his final concussion.

This was his fourth in five months.

After that, things took a nose dive. Connor started self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to help deal with the symptoms of what doctors had confirmed was Post Concussion Syndrome (PCS).

“His personality change was dramatic and specific,” Lyn said, teary eyed. “He turned inward and became very dark.”

When the family saw his neurologist in June 2015 the doctor told them the cortisone levels in Connor’s brain were heightened, causing him to be in a state of constant fight or flight.

He couldn’t deal with stimuli like bright lights, school bells or noisy students in the halls between classes. He couldn’t focus on his work and got into fights in the halls at St. Mike’s.

“We soon realized that he needed a lot more accommodation than we had arranged for,” Lyn said, adding the staff at St. Mike’s was extremely helpful. “They knew him as the sports kid not the trouble kid. We were very lucky that they wanted to help him.”

Connor spent the next year and a half in and out of different specialty school programs in Brockville, Russell and Smiths Falls, all the while struggling academically, with his mood and substance abuse.

In January 2016, he spent two weeks at CHEO after almost overdosing on drugs.

“He kept telling everyone that there was something wrong in his head,” Lyn said. “He wanted it to be fixed.”

Sarah Raymond is no stranger to that feeling of desperation: knowing that there is something very wrong but not knowing how to fix it.

In 2016, Sarah was a national-level black belt in karate, spending all her free time either at the gym or Douvris, a martial arts centre in Ottawa.

“I was training really hard in everything. I would go to [the gym] in the morning and then to the dojo after work for one or two classes.”

It was just a week before the test for the second Dan in karate (the level above black belt) and the energy was high in the room at Douvris. The room was packed that day, which made Sarah uncomfortable, but she ignored her gut feeling and continued with her practice. “What Sensei says you do in karate,” she said.

Sarah Raymond

They were practising take downs when she smacked heads with another practitioner and then hit her head on the floor.

“I just started laughing,” she said, adding that she found out later that was a sign of a concussion. “It felt like someone took a brick to my head.”

During the next few weeks Sarah struggled with the symptoms of her concussion. Numbness in her arms and legs, disorientation, pressure and throbbing in her head and being overly emotional and teary.

Her doctor diagnosed her with a minor concussion, which she figured would rectify itself over time. Although she didn’t go back to karate she continued going to the gym, training for dragon boat racing and running.

When things started to get worse Sarah went back to the doctor who referred her to a physiotherapist who had experience with concussions.

She was told to take time off work, stop all vigorous exercise and focus on resting her brain so it could heal.

“I was so upset taking just four days off,” she said. “Every step of the way was a big psychological barrier.”

At the three-month mark Sarah says she got very depressed. “I realized this wasn’t going away anytime soon. I was afraid this was going to be the rest of my life.”

Sarah found that she had to create a new identity for herself post-concussion. She couldn’t go back to karate and work was off the table for the foreseeable future.

“My entire identity was taken away. My work and karate were everything.”

Sarah says her recovery process was hard, not just for her but for her entire family. “I had no filter towards my husband and family, I was very lucky that they were so understanding and supportive.”

With the support of her family and the help of many specialists Sarah said she has made a lot of progress.

“After two years I am 90-95 per cent better.

That last five per cent is still a factor in her everyday, limiting her ability to drive and be in front of a screen. She said she will never go back to karate but has been able to slowly integrate exercise back into her life, which has helped immensely with her recovery.

“I see it as a blessing in disguise. Now that I am healing I have learned what is most important in life. It has made me a better, stronger person.”

Sarah said she wishes she had known more about concussions before it happened. “It’s not just a migraine. Even if it is a minor concussion it doesn’t mean it has a minor affect on your life.”

Connor’s multiple concussions are still having a major impact on his life. Since being hospitalized in 2016 he has been to rehab for drugs and alcohol twice and has struggled immensely with his mood and the anguish that lives inside his head.

Recently his parents and support network found a program just outside Guelph called Portage which helps adolescents with addiction.

He was scheduled to be admitted for six months of treatment this past August but the night before he got nervous and ran away from home. “We thought because of his drug history that he was in dire need and death was imminent,” Lyn said.

Thankfully, through social media, they had many members of the North Grenville community out looking for him and he was found unconscious along Rideau River Road. It turns out he had met up with his friends to do drugs and when he overdosed they became frightened and dumped him on the side of the road.

“I honestly forgive them,” Lyn said, her voice wobbling and tears in her eyes. “I don’t have any room in my heart or my head for the amount of anger I had.”

After a brief time at Kemptville District Hospital, Connor was admitted to a detox centre in Brampton. On Aug. 13, he was admitted to Portage. However, since he is over 16 he can discharge himself at any time.

“We are hopeful that Connor will be able to reset his brain with intense therapy. Hope is all we have left.”

Lyn has been documenting her family’s journey with Connor on Facebook. It started out as a way to let family and friends know about his progress but turned into an avenue to spread awareness about the impact of concussions and advocate for people at risk of TBI. “Connor has a number of friends who are elite athletes who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, have impulse issues and have been in trouble with the law. So many parents have been contacting me for information.”

Lyn started a Facebook group called Traumatic Brain Injury Mommas United that already boasts 169 members. She is also going to talk to a superintendent at the Catholic School Board of Eastern Ontario about subjecting children to concussions at school.

“I want to save lives. I want to save kids who are suffering from PCS and who don’t know what it is. We are sharing our story so other parents can recognize what they are going through and advocate for their children’s mental and physical health.”

Concussions affect every person differently and there is no one treatment that will help everyone to heal. It is a long process that needs patience and the help of many doctors and specialists.

Lyn said if there is one thing she hopes people take away from her story is that it’s not “just a concussion.”

It is a traumatic brain injury that, according to Dr. Goulet, affects just as many people annually as breast cancer, multiple sclerosis and traumatic spinal chord injury combined.

“So many people said, ‘it’s just a concussion,’” Lyn said. “If we can save one life with our story then all this will almost be worth it.”