We are under a blanket of new snow here in Denver, and it’s two degrees outside. Usually this time of year I am already making my way through a tropical jungle, either by canoe or on foot. In January I try to explore some new equatorial country. I was thinking about Columbia for 2017. That didn’t happen. The school of hard knocks got in the way. Knocks to the noggin, that is. Last year, Outside Magazine published a lengthy, thoughtful article about young adventure athletes who were committing suicide increasing numbers. Kids (to me anyway) who had begun their competitive careers in pre-adolesense in skateboarding, skiing, snowboarding, and had started getting their bells rung early on. Boys and girls. We’re not talking about football players here. We’re talking children. Your kids. Traumatic Brain Injury is the silent epidemic. “In contrast to other common neurological diseases, such as stroke and Alzheimer disease, TBI is most prevalent in younger populations, with the 0–4-year and 15–19-year age groups experiencing the highest rates of incidence,” according to a report by the National Institutes of Health. It affects some 57 million Americans. You. Me.
The article discussed a few high profile athletes, then outlined the symptoms. As I read the article the hair on the back my neck rose. I was reading about myself. The blank moments. The brain fog. The uncontrolled anger outbursts. The crying jags. The screaming obscenities, completely out of character. The constant need for naps- for a person with unbelievable natural energy. The inability to focus on my writing. Losing names, words, blanking out. Having to drive off the road and sleep- anywhere. On one hand I was horrified, yet on the other relieved. I took out a sheet of paper and made myself remember ever time I conked my coconut. Thirteen times since 2008, that I could remember. All very serious cracks to the noggin. I had an answer to the mystery. Here at last was the key- at least I knew what was going on. Now, to get help.
My sports chiropractor, Dr. Ron Spallone, is one of the top sports docs in the country. A one time football player himself, he has also been “jacked up” in popular sports parlance. He knows what his future could hold, and has for years been researching the latest neurological science for answers. His own future is in the balance. As someone who has treated such luminaries as John Elway, Barry Bonds and Joe Montana as well as numerous MLB and hockey athletes, Dr. Spallone knows what the elite require for care.
Ron used me for his guinea pig in 2016. He put me on a computer program called neuro-feedback, which is a passive, brainwave training program approved by the FDA for PTSD and concussion protocols. It takes a number of weeks, is non-invasive, and all you do is watch a movie while the program gently retrains your brain waves. You don’t notice a thing, but your brain gets rewired. I noticed some improvement. However, because I took myself off my regular meds to support this program (I didn’t know not to) it wasn’t as effective. That was my mistake.
What did work, and most spectacularly, was what’s called “oxygenation.” Dr. Spallone had installed a simple system called LiveO2 in his office, made up of a stationary bike, a face mask, oxygen and a large oxygen bag. You sit on the bike, pedal for a few minutes and under strict observation, you sprint for several seconds while being monitored. Your oxygen level is adjusted to a mountainous height of 14,000′ while you sprint as fast as you can (you adjust the bike to what you can do) for 20 or 30 seconds. The trained attendant checks your pulse and your oxygen level and then they return the oxygen which is highly enriched. Your starved brain and body cells are blasted with this enriched oxygen, and the attendant measures how quickly your body returns to a full 100% . The whole thing takes just a few minutes total. Over time your body learns to increase to 100% faster and faster.
I was Ron’s test subject, so as an athlete, we really pushed. I mean really pushed. I sprinted as hard as I could for three sprints, which we ramped up to a minute, and with very little rest in between. In hardly a week I saw the difference. Not only was my thinking a lot clearer, my sense of humor came back. In spades. It was like all that oxygen was getting places where either it never had before, or the injuries had blocked it from reaching.
In almost no time at all I was writing again. Not only that but my output was burgeoning. Better, and faster, and funnier. My creativity was back, the ideas flowing. The outbursts were gone. The symptoms abated. I still forget stuff once in a while but look, I’m going to be 64 in three weeks. I don’t frankly care. I don’t have to nap in Whole Foods parking lots anymore. I am out of bed at 3 am sharp, work all day, take a 20 minute meditation midday and back at it. Back to all my workouts. Like nothing ever happened. If anything, I’m better than I ever was.
What I really appreciate is that the constant drip drip drip of suicidal thoughts is gone. For people who simply cannot understand why a Junior Seau could take his life, well, I can. I spent more than a year dealing with effects of post concussive syndrome that was likely a fraction of what that man dealt with after his NFL career. Until you have lived with constant thoughts of ending it all, you cannot relate. I can. Even while I planned terrific overeseas trips, my brain was making suggestions about how to end all the discomfort. It is NO FUN. While I had no intention of doing such a thing, just living with that constant internal conversation drove me to distraction. After this oxygenation training, it’s gone completely. Like when you don’t have an aching tooth, you forget it was ever painful. Like that. As a Buddhist might put it, the happiness of no-pain.
So this January, I am starting out anew. A new business. A brand new purpose. I wrote a letter to Dr. Spallone this morning expressing my heartfelt gratitude for allowing me to be his guinea pig. We are continuing this work together to see where else it might take us. I have great hopes for what this might mean not only for athletes but for the millions of Americans who have bonked their heads and like me, laughed it off. Got up, kept on going. Like he-men and warrior women like they see in the movies.
I speak from experience. Those action heroes who slam down the stairs? I’ve done that. Thirty two concrete stairs. You do NOT get up and keep fighting and ride off with the girl and laugh it off. Our noggins cannot take that kind of pounding. After thirteen concussions, I am fortunate to still be standing. A great many good people- including our kids- aren’t.
Folks, I used to make fun of my head injuries and get up and keep going. Until I couldn’t. They’re not funny. With TBI the leading cause of death and disability across all population demographics and 10 million people requiring hospitalization, it’s not just the NFL’s or an athlete’s issue. More than 52,000 of us die every year. We cannot just laugh it off. Doing so nearly cost me my life.
And before you argue that you or your kids wear safety gear: NO. The helmet does NOT make a difference. I wear a safety helmet for every single sport I do from horseback riding to rafting to kayaking to skydiving to paragliding. All they do is keep the surface of your skull from cracking open. Your brain will keep right on moving as fast as you are moving and slam around the inside of your skull like a pinball. That is what bruises your brain and causes the concussion. From the standpoint of your brain, it makes little difference. Speed+impact=concussion. Period. Besides, I can’t count the times a branch or a raft smacked my head or my cheek, missing the helmet entirely. That’s why they call it an adventure.
If you or someone you love has has a concussion, or you see it happen, it is intensely important to follow proper concussion protocols. If your boyfriend tries to shrug it off, that’s not brave or manly. That’s just plain STUPID. If this isn’t the first time you notice symptoms, look into some of these promising new treatments. While results are going to vary from person to person, I believe there is good reason to believe there’s hope.