Emma | Ohio

Emma | Ohio

Photo Credit: Erik Alberg

When Emma, a 21-year-old aspiring professional dancer from Ohio, hit her head doing a backbend in mid-July 2018, she never suspected that she’d suffered a concussion. A dance major and dean’s list student at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, she had been enjoying summer break before a busy junior year. “I had concussions before—from a car accident, from playing softball, and even after a mountain biking mishap—but none of them affected me the way this one did,” she explains.

Symptoms

Returning
to Hope College a few weeks later, Emma resumed her demanding schedule of academic
and dance classes, initially unaware of the lingering symptoms from the
concussion she had sustained. Almost immediately, she started having
unexplained dizzy spells, muscle tremors, episodes of complete exhaustion, and
panic attacks. She was also anxious and irritable, overwhelmed by crowds, and struggling
to concentrate. “A homework assignment that would usually take only 20 minutes
would take an hour to complete,” she recalls. Despite these challenges, she was
determined to finish the fall semester. It wasn’t until she went home to Ohio
for winter break, after completing her fall semester, that she started
searching for an answer to her symptoms.

Aware
of Emma’s physical issues, and knowing the family’s history of epilepsy, her
parents were extremely concerned. They also noticed that she was unusually
emotional, anxious, and irritable—signs that Emma herself did not recognize. “I
had all these symptoms, but I was just living my life as usual,” she notes. 

Emma
later learned that concussion symptoms can be subtle and may not show up
immediately after an injury. “A full school schedule, especially my cardio
training and dance classes, triggered my symptoms,” she says.

Searching
for a Diagnosis

While thinking about what the next steps should be, Emma’s father, who is a fan of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., thought immediately of visiting Michael “Micky” Collins, PhD, clinical and executive director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion program, who treated Dale’s concussions previously. “My dad connected the concussion symptoms Earnhardt Jr. wrote about in his book with what was happening to me,” she explains. “He suggested that we contact Dr. Collins.”

In
January 2019, Emma met with Dr. Collins and his team of specialists for a
comprehensive concussion assessment.  “At
that point, I wasn’t sure I would ever get better,” she says.

“After
lots of tests to figure out what triggered my symptoms, Dr. Collins said, ‘Yes,
you have a concussion. And yes, we have the tools to fix it.’ Hearing that
‘yes’ meant the world to me,” recalls Emma.

Treatment

Dr.
Collins and his team of specialists customized a six-week treatment plan
designed to get Emma back to dancing, including physical exertion and
vestibular rehabilitation therapies to treat her injured brain. “Since they
knew what exercises triggered my symptoms, those triggers were incorporated
into my therapy to allow my brain to become
desensitized to them,” she explains.

Determined
to get back to her normal dancer life, Emma was committed to her
rehabilitation. Three times a week, Emma did cardio exercises with different
turns and jumps added by her therapists to trigger dizziness. “On Tuesdays and
Thursdays, my therapist mixed it up with abdominal exercises that included
mountain climbers and planks with head rotations,” she explains. She also did a
series of exercises twice daily to help reduce dizziness, unbalance, and other
concussion-related issues.

With plans of a dance
internship in New York City during the fall 2019 semester, Emma and her therapy
team knew she had to overcome her overwhelming anxiety of being in large
crowds. “By putting myself into those places, again and again, I was able to
become desensitized,” she explains.

By late February, just six
weeks after her initial visit with Dr. Collins, Emma tested out of all her
therapies and stopped the medicines she’d been taking.     

Recovery

In
July 2019, Emma completed an intensive, three-week professional dance training
program in Maine. In August, she moved to New York City for a semester-long
dance internship and classes with the Dance Lab New York and Paul Taylor Dance
Company. “I’m confident that I can do this internship without worrying about my
concussion symptoms coming back,” she says.

Emma
shared that fulfilling this long-held dream is due in large part to the care
she received from Dr. Collins and her therapists at UPMC. “They were all
amazing,” she adds. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to
surround me.”

Emma intends to keep up a
regular exercise routine, including dance and cross-training, because “it helps
keep my brain clear and focused. With
the lessons I’ve learned during this process— about myself, self-care, and
asking others for help when I need it— I’m ready to graduate and enter the
real world.”