Jacqueline Colao ’17 doesn’t recall what happened when she collided with another player during a basketball scrimmage her senior year in high school.
“I don’t remember any of it because I got knocked unconscious, but I was told that there was another girl and I who both jumped up in the air to get a loose ball,” Colao said. “And my left cheekbone hit into her shoulder which knocked me unconcious. And then I fell onto the court and cracked open the side of my head.”
Colao suffered a serious concussion. Nearly eight months later, when she tried to enroll at Bowdoin as a first year, she found her symptoms were still too severe for her to fulfill her responsibilities as a student.
“By the second day I couldn’t get out of bed, so I was like, 'OK, probably can’t go to school then,'” Colao recalled.
She ended up taking a gap year to sort out her health.
Like Colao, Juliet Eyraud ’16 suffered a severe concussion during an athletic competition. The spring break of her sophomore year at Bowdoin, she was concussed during an ultimate frisbee competition.
“I didn’t think it was going to last that long,” Eyraud said. She returned to school and began experiencing migraine concussion symptoms. Her brain whirred when she tried to read and she couldn't look at computers.
Colao and Eyraud’s stories aren’t unique. According to Carri Kivela, a nurse practitioner in health services who specializes in concussions, Bowdoin students go to the Health Center with concussions every week.
Concussions occur on a spectrum of severity, and certain factors—such as pre-existing medical conditions or previous concussions—can complicate any given concussion. Although concussions have been given increased attention over the past few years, they remain relatively mysterious.
“Even the specialists, the neurology specialists that [I] go to, are like, ‘I don’t really know when you’re going to get better,’” said Eyraud.
'Health comes first'
As director of athletic training, Dan Davies oversees student-athletes who suffer concussions. Each varsity sport also has an individual trainer, and the athletic department works closely with the health center, as well as with the dean’s office.
“We have weekly meetings,” Davies said. “We have a staff report of all concussions that is sent to the dean’s office, the athletic director, and our team doctor so that everybody is aware of every progression, where they are, where aren’t they.”
During the 2014-2015 academic year, there were 66 concussions reported by athletes according to Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan.
The concussion recovery process is fairly strict. Most students who are diagnosed with a concussion first face 48 hours of brain rest.
“That means no cell phone, no computers, no movies, no loud music. It’s really resting in your room,” Davies said. “No loud places of gathering… try to avoid eating in the dining hall for a couple of days.”
Unsurprisingly, brain rest isn’t popular among Bowdoin students.
“Most people haven’t really had to shut down at any point in their life for that much,” said Kivela.
While brain rest is a start, it does not heal a concussion on its own. Kivela said that most students take one to two weeks to fully recover.
Athletes who suffer a concussion must also complete several cognitive tests before they return to their sport. Even then, they spend a few days biking, running and doing agility drills before resuming full contact.
For many students, missing out on regular college life while recovering from a concussion can be highly stressful.
“Some [students] get more anxious, because they’re not in class. They have to be in class. They have to do their work. Well, no, you don’t,” said Davies. “Health comes first. You're here for your brain. You got in here because of your brain. Don’t do anything to prevent that from healing.”
The Polar Brain Alliance
To help students manage the difficulties associated with brain rest and concussion recovery, several students recently founded a group called the Polar Brain Alliance.
Harrison Carmichael ’17, one of the group’s leaders, understands the danger of concussions. He experienced a concussion himself while in high school, and has seen how concussions have impacted his classmates here at Bowdoin.
“I have a lot my friends who have at this school dealt with concussions on a very wide spectrum of intensity,” he said. “I’ve just seen that it can be a really debilitating, difficult thing.”
The Polar Brain Alliance hopes to provide both logistical and emotional support to Bowdoin students who suffer concussions. They’re willing to complete any number of tasks, from bringing concussed students an express dinner to doing their laundry, texting their friends, or simply talking with them if they are lonely.
“Brain rest can be kind of isolating,” said Carmichael.
Carmichael and his fellow Polar Brain Alliance leaders recently led a training on the danger of concussions and how to support a friend who is concussed. They hope that the students they have trained can serve as resources for any Bowdoin student who suffers a concussion.
“If a student suffers a concussion, a trainer or a coach can be like, ‘Hey, here is this list of students who are prepared to help you out,’” Carmichael said.
Colao believes that increased awareness about the impacts of concussions can help Bowdoin students better support their peers.
“If you know somebody has a concussion, make sure to check in with them,” she said. “Even little things, like the volume of your voice, like trying to keep that quiet, or asking the person if it’s bothering them, like not showing people screens without asking.”
While the Polar Brain Alliance seeks to provide social support, the health center and other resources on campus aim to ensure that Bowdoin students who suffer concussions still find success academically.
For some students, this includes taking time off from the College. Colao took a gap year prior to coming to Bowdoin, while Eyraud took off the spring 2015 semester.
“One of the concussion specialists I talked to was basically like, ‘You should just take a semester off from school. That’s the only thing that could really help,’” Eyraud said.
But even after time off, Eyraud has found that her concussion symptoms still affect her academics. A computer science major, she struggles to look at bright screens for extended periods of time.
“Computer science ended up being super inconvenient,” she laughed.
After consulting her advisor, she opted for an independent study to finish her major rather than an intensive programming class, which would likely trigger her symptoms. She’s made other adaptations as well.
“All of my professors know about it. So whenever they do PowerPoints I get the printout from them in advance,” she said.
Likewise, Colao has found that her lingering concussion symptoms make her classroom experience different than the average Bowdoin student.
“We have this feedback loop in our body where you have a thought and you say something but then you also hear back what you said and process that,” she explained. “But my feedback loop broke… I’m sure people who’ve had classes with me have noticed that I just go on long rants and ramble a lot because I want to make sure that I am communicating whatever I can. But I don’t know whether I am or not.”
Despite these difficulties, Colao doesn’t want to let her concussion hold her back. A government and philosophy double major with an economics minor, she’s interested in both law and business school.
While the majority of people who experience concussions no longer see symptoms after two or three weeks, for some, like Colao and Eyraud, symptoms can last much longer.
For Eyraud, this meant modifying not only her academic plan, but also changing her habits and social life.
“I have sort of an anti-college lifestyle, in that I go to bed early and I don’t look at my computer all that much,” said Eyraud.
At the same time, she tries to maintain a positive attitude toward the changes she has made.
“I think one of the positive things that has come out of it is that a lot of the things that help with concussions are also things that just help with normal healthy living,” she said.
For Colao, the most difficult aspect has been learning to accept the severity of her concussion.
“I feel like a lot of people hear the four years that I’ve been through and think that it’s like the craziest thing they’ve ever heard, or the most awful concussion they’ve ever heard of, but it’s a lot more common than people think,” said Colao. “And when I first got my concussion, I didn’t take it seriously. I mean, I couldn’t get out of bed for a couple months, but… I still thought it was going to heal in like six months, a year.”
Now, four years later, Colao has realized that her concussion won’t just go away with brain rest. At the same time, this understanding means that she is now taking further steps to improve her brain function and reduce her symptoms.
She wears customized glasses which direct light to different parts of her brain. And she completes special brain puzzles that are designed to train her healthy brain pathways to compensate for the damaged ones.
“A lot of it has been me just trying to figure out how to tackle these things on my own when no one else is really going to have more expertise,” said Colao.
She hopes that groups like the Polar Brain Alliance can help Bowdoin students gain a better understanding of concussions.
“If you haven’t been through a concussion or a traumatic brain injury like this, it’s very hard for people to understand.”