Dear Hockey,

Dear Hockey,

I didn’t think this day would come so soon. I thought we had more time. Did we really have to end it this way? I thought this would be on my terms. But so many things in life aren’t on our own terms. 

You were passed down to me from my siblings. I fell in love with you at the age of three, when I couldn’t possibly understand the concept of the game. Some of my earliest childhood memories are with you. You were with me as I grew up, carried me through my formative years all the way to college and after. You may have been my first love. I’ve been hurt by love before and didn’t expect it – the suddenness. I struggled getting through it then just as I’ve struggled with letting you go now. 

We know of the impermanence of life but maybe we can’t fully grasp it until something we deeply love so much is gone in an instant. It happens time and time again, but it never gets easier. Maybe I expected you’d always be here which was foolish. Because nothing lasts forever. Everything comes to an end. I don’t think I could fully grasp your magnitude until you were gone.

I tried to avoid you for a long time but you’re everywhere, catching me off guard as you’ve ignited the years of memories that live deep inside to come alive and play before my eyes like a film reel. I thought of you today as I was cleaning my room. I found some old news articles, pictures and awards of some of the things we’ve accomplished together. They make me feel proud but also sad. The pictures feel so heavy and so loud. It comes rushing back – the feelings at that exact moment. How is it that I can hear the noise in the picture? I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about you every day since that awful day. You know the one, don’t you?

I see you all over. Why do you have to be…everywhere? You’re connected to the people in my life – in my friends who were once teammates, in my parents, in my siblings. I see you in big hits in sporting events. I can’t even watch them without thinking of you and what happened between us. My heart drops into my stomach. It makes me nauseous. I cringe as I hear the sound of the crunching helmets, the bodies slamming the boards, the sound of equipment on equipment as two players collide. 

It’s strange how you are so intertwined in everything still. I think of you every time I put my old hockey sweats on. I think of you when the season starts to change and the fall mornings are brisk, reminding me the hockey season is about to begin. A song takes me to the locker room, singing with my teammates. Sometimes that song starts playing – the one I listened to in the car with my teammates before we arrived at the rink for our last game together. It’s like a time machine, taking me back to the moment when everything was still good. I’ve found myself longing for what once was. While your memory will fade, my surroundings will always connect me to you. 

Some of my proudest moments involve you, and some of my favorite moments too. You gave me something to be proud of and taught me to be proud of myself. True happiness was skating with my teammates, my best friends, fighting for a common goal. What can replace the camaraderie of a team? Hours upon hours were dedicated to you. You’ve spanned all emotions with me. You helped me create a name for myself. You gave me confidence. You made me feel like a superhero for just a few hours. 

You were there for me for 25 years. And then you weren’t. 

Do you remember our moments together? Do you remember… 

Mini hockey in the hotel hallways? When I was named captain of my all boys team? The locker room music – joking, laughing and dancing with teammates? The pre-game pep talks? The world-stopping goals? The hat tricks and playmakers? The emotion? Excruciating blocked shots? Team bonding in the hotel? That feeling the night before the first game of the season like the night before Christmas morning? Pre-game meals? Clinching the conference playoff championship game? Painful ice bath sessions? The soul crushing losses? The countless injuries? The tears of pain and tears of joy? Short-handed goals? Painful off-ice training? Advancing to the national championships year after year? The bus rides? Early childhood morning drives to games in full equipment? 5AM practices? All the awards? Team dinners? Post-game celebrations? Road trips? The pride in my parent’s eyes as they watched me play? The passion? Pre-game jitters? My siblings road tripping across the country to see me play? The big wins? The shivers traversing my entire body after a game winning goal? Crashing the ice with my whole team to celebrate? 

I’ll remember. And I’ll never forget. 

You allowed me to learn so much about myself, to grow in ways I couldn’t even understand until you were gone. What you taught me could never be taught elsewhere. You taught me courage, discipline, teamwork, connectedness. You were my guide. My escape. You taught me what it means to be an underdog, and to rise to the occasion.

You were there in the darkest moments and lightest moments. You gave me so many opportunities, allowed me to travel the world, to connect with people, and even led me to excellent education. You taught me to work hard for everything. You taught me that in order to be great, I need to give it everything I have.

You enhanced my life but also tore it apart. I almost wish I would have chosen to move forward with a different sport to play competitively instead. Maybe then I wouldn’t have suffered so many head injuries. I knew there were risks of playing but never this. I never believed you could have done this. There were moments I felt like I was drowning. Tears flowed and the thoughts drowned me. But the waves of tears couldn’t wash you away. 

Couldn’t you have let me know that game was my last so I could have done things differently? So I could’ve held onto those moments harder? I would have taken it all in one last time and engraved it into my senses and nerves. While you’ll start to fade, I’ll never forget…that first cold breath of air hitting the lungs as I stepped onto the ice. The sound of the puck against the blades of the stick. The crisp sound of the skates crunching into a fresh cut ice. The smell and the feeling of the shocking chill in the arena. The electrifying feeling after scoring a goal like I was on top of the world. 

I’ll also never forget the feeling of defeat – a feeling that has become all too familiar over the past two and a half years. But you taught me how to bounce back from defeat. You taught me to show up even after the setbacks. You made me stronger. You made me resilient. And maybe that’s partly why I’m still here today. 

I love you but I also hate you. You had my back and then stabbed me in it. How could you do this? We’ve been through so much together. I’ve bled for you. I’ve cried for you. You made me who I am and then broke me down, making me question my existence. You were a part of me. I thought we could get through anything. You gave me confidence and courage. I felt like I could be myself in your presence. You helped me express my emotions. You hurt me. You broke me. You picked me up. You beat me down. 

You taught me so many lessons. You taught me to be a good teammate, to be humble, to be patient. You created beauty. But you also caused destruction. You destroyed all I had worked for. You caused me so much pain, but I felt I truly lived because of you. It all changed within a split second, though. Couldn’t you have warned me? It all changed and I can’t say I’ve truly been able to live the past few years, not like this.

You pushed me to my limits my entire life but I always pushed through. There would always be pain, but I pushed through. But this injury was a limit I never could have imagined experiencing. I’ve barely been pushing through. But I’ve come so far, and I think you’d be proud.

You made me question my worth, to feel inadequate. For years you reminded me of who I am. But that person is gone and now you constantly remind me of who I’m not. I’m coming to terms with the fact that maybe that’s okay. I no longer hold the title of an athlete – that’s part of my past and something I used to be. In just a flash, what I knew, what was ingrained into my being was gone. You were gone. You made me happy, but the last few years you made me depressed. 

You weren’t just something I played; you were a piece of my identity.

You made time stand still for at least a little bit, an escape from the inescapable. Worries melted away. You became muscle memory, part of my nervous system. 

I put you before my health. I have the scars to show it. I sacrificed so much for you. I didn’t want to let you go because letting you go was letting a piece of me go. I wasn’t ready. Suddenly, I wasn’t that athlete anymore. I couldn’t be who I thought I was. I’ve never felt so misunderstood. You used to make me feel understood.

I tried desperately to hold onto you despite the red flags. Maybe you did give me a sign after the first five head injuries but I ignored them. I couldn’t walk away and let our relationship die. I was in denial about us. When I was told I couldn’t afford another hit to my head, that’s when I knew it was over. I started to mourn you. I never really said goodbye to you after college hockey ended. You caused me so much pain then but I think I knew it wasn’t over between us. At least then, when I needed a break from you, it was on my terms. But this was not on my terms, and this isn’t a break. This goodbye is forever.

I feel guilty for questioning you and if you were worth it. I am grateful for the 25 years we shared and will hold onto those memories forever but honestly, I’ve asked myself if it was worth this. Could anything have prepared me for this consequence of playing?

I’ll never forget how terrified and helpless I felt lying on the ice as I struggled to speak and see clearly. October 13, 2018, things changed for us. Forever. The past few years I haven’t been living. I’ve endured pain, suffering, heartache. I didn’t realize I could feel so low. I’ve felt trapped, unable to do things because my body and mind have been at war with each other. 

If I had known that would be the last time, maybe I could remember more. But I don’t remember the details of that last game very clearly. Somehow you took that from me. You didn’t even give me the whole game. The worst part is that I didn’t experience the ending with anyone. I left the ice that day for the last time, alone. I didn’t know it would be the last time in that jersey with my best friends. It would be the last time we would get pumped in the locker room to music together, the last time we embraced after a goal. That day was full of lasts and I didn’t even know it. My last faceoff. My last goal. The last time I celebrated with my team. The last time I shared the ice with my friends. The last time we rode in the car to a game together. 

The day came too soon, where I hung up my skates. I walked out of the rink for the last time after the game. But the truth is, this day would’ve always felt too soon. I just wish I could go back and live like it was my last time with you. 

We never know when something’s going to be the last time. I now have a deeper understanding of fleeting moments and I’m going to desperately hold on to them all, because every moment is fleeting. 

I would never wish the physical and emotional pain you put me through upon anyone. But because of you, I was forced to overcome odds, to be stronger. To fight for something. You gave me the light and the dark, the best and the worst times of my life. I was forced into this adversity. My whole life I chose you, but I didn’t choose this. 

When I was lost, I’d put my skates on and all my worries would fade. But the past few years you’ve caused me to feel lost – more lost than I’ve ever felt in my life. I’ve looked for someone or something to blame. I’ve even found myself blaming me for this. And while I have looked to you to blame over and over, I know I can’t. 

Maybe without the pain, without the defeat, I wouldn’t truly understand just how special our moments were. While I have endured so much over the past two and a half years, you have given me yet another opportunity to grow.

You have given me so much. You have given me life lessons, connections and experiences. You allowed me to see the world. Most importantly, you brought me the closest relationships of my life – blessings that I count over and over. As I say goodbye, I will always remember the way you made me feel and the people you allowed me to meet. Without those people, my life would mean nothing.

I’ve missed you deeply but I’ve also hated you. I’ve been so mad at you. But I forgive you.

This is on my terms – I forgive you.

As much as I wanted to reject you, you will always be a part of my being. Thank you for teaching me so many valuable life lessons. For teaching me to believe in myself. You are part of my story, how I carry myself. You will always be expressed in my conversations, actions, my strength, and my ability to just. keep. going. 

I’ve felt a lot like an underdog the past few years but I’m still here, and yet again I’m rising to the occasion. I’m giving this everything I have. That’s something you taught me that can never be erased.

Though I’ve hated you a lot lately, the truth is, I will always love you. 

Love,

Drew

Identity Crisis

It was just a little over 2 months post-concussion when I began to question everything in my life. The symptoms were relentless and still so bad that I started asking myself if when I’m cleared to play hockey again it would be worth the risk. It really didn’t make sense that I was even considering playing again at that point because I was nowhere near being cleared. It brought me so much anxiety thinking of this decision – to play or not to play. I discussed my concerns with my concussion specialist who then referred me to see a sports psychologist.

The sports psychologist asked me what my biggest concern of playing again was. I explained my fear of this happening again and experiencing the same or an even worse outcome. I will never forget what he said to me. He said, “Wasn’t that always the risk?” I can’t explain why this one question made me feel like my brain was spinning out. My mind was going all over the place. I thought to myself, wow, it really was the risk of playing the whole time, the past 25 years. Every time I stepped onto the ice, there was this persistent risk of injury.

While it was a risk my whole life, I never stopped to really think about it. Thinking back, we were never taught of serious risks like this. Yeah, you might dislocate a shoulder or break a bone but an injury that alters your entire life? No, that won’t happen to me. We were never taught that a concussion was anything really serious. Was I always one hit away? Anyway, the sport that is part of me couldn’t do this to me, right? The psychologist was absolutely right and I thought, if I had known this was the risk I wouldn’t have played. But that statement in itself seems like a betrayal to hockey so essentially, it’s a betrayal to myself.

It wasn’t until this appointment that I realized what was happening within me. I discussed my feelings and thought process with the psychologist and he said, “You are experiencing an identity crisis.” I sat there and stared at him in a prolonged moment of awkward silence. He was right. Why hadn’t I thought of that? It made complete sense.

What I felt then, 2 months post-concussion, I still struggle with today, 26 months later. It’s like a void within me. While I don’t feel this way all the time like I had before, sometimes I still feel like I don’t know who I am anymore. I am unable to work and I am unable to play hockey. After all the years of hard work, school and money to achieve my dream of working as a PA, I am unable to do that. After playing hockey for 25 years to the point that it’s part of every fiber of my being, I am unable to play. 

Where do I fit anymore?

Who we are becomes so deeply intertwined with what we do. When asked who we are, we often respond with our occupation, our passions, our family and how many siblings we have. It’s an interesting thing to think about. If you ask a kid who they are, more often than not, they will respond with something similar to, “I am a hockey player.” That’s what it was like for me. But then I achieved my dream and so I became a hockey player and a physician assistant.  

Our identities are so important. It’s years’ worth of memories – it tells your story. A story within that you carry around with you everywhere you go – a beautiful masterpiece spanning your entire life consisting of strengths, weaknesses, personality, passions and experiences that ground you and keep you rooted. It’s this story that is told to others by how we communicate, think, act and feel. Without even knowing it, we are telling it in our everyday lives. It shapes our morals, knowledge, and ultimately helps us understand our place in the world. The way I see it, every interaction we have reflects this personal story. It’s what makes you, you and what makes me, me.

Hockey has been all-encompassing for me. Sometimes it takes kids many years to find that one sport for them. That wasn’t it for me, though. At the age of 3, my skates were laced up for the first time and I would never look back. My life revolved around hockey. I was in the hockey rink so much growing up that it felt like a second home. Even when I wasn’t on the ice playing, I was running around the rink with my siblings and friends. 

From a young age, my evenings were mostly spent at hockey practice and my weekends involved traveling to tournaments. The summer before college I spent most of my time in the gym and on the ice practicing my stick handling and the accuracy of my shot. In college, we were either on the ice or in the gym during the week and either playing home games or traveling on the weekends. Going into college I didn’t really stop to think about my future after hockey. I just wanted to play, and in the moment that was good enough. 

So many hours were spent training, traveling and competing. Having this constant thing in my life brought me ambition, purpose, deep friendships, and relief from the stressors of life. There was always a feeling of gratification while playing. 

Hockey soon became a part of me, a foundation. It was this special place within me of coherence that always remained constant even in moments of uncertainty. It was a safe haven. I realize now it’s ridiculous to call it a safe haven. My problems seemed to melt away when I stepped onto the ice. 

It wasn’t just the physical component of the sport I lost but the emotional and psychological component. The camaraderie of the team, the deep connections my teammates, the consistent outlet where I could escape – vanished. The physical loss seemed somewhat easier to cope with than the psychological loss.

Being forced out of hockey and leaving the game on terms that were not my own, I started the grieving process of the sport. It took me a very long time to realize I was grieving. I was grieving the death of hockey and grieving my athletic identity. The foundation that grounded me also ended up destroying me. It was like a part of me had died, and I had started to grieve that part of me too. 

I’d experience unexplained periods of anger. Depression and guilt became frequent emotions. I think maybe I kept a lot of the details of my recovery to myself for so long partly because of denial – denial from this major loss in my life. I also felt that I would be viewed as weak-minded or ungrateful if I shared all of it. Even sharing just a little of what I was going through brought judgment and misunderstanding from others so I almost felt like I had to downplay or belittle the severity of it too.

I have experienced recurring thoughts and questions:

Who am I anymore?

What can I possibly contribute to the world right now?

I had a fear that everyone would move on without me. But that’s life – it carries on. Soon after, it seemed like I was stuck in place watching everyone move on without me. I thought this was something I would have to face alone. Others in my life moved on with work and relationships. 

My teammates continued the season and traveled to tournaments and went on to nationals. I really thought I would be better to go with my team but a huge part of this was denial. My teammates tried to keep me connected by texting and calling. They even took a cardboard cut-out of me and sent me photos of them with cardboard me. It was so thoughtful and something I was grateful for but even so, I felt like an outsider. I was no longer part of that – the camaraderie and connectedness of the team. 

It seemed like I was stuck in a bad dream, my feet cemented to the ground. I’d try to follow but couldn’t and was stuck in place. I’d scream out but everyone was getting further and further away and couldn’t hear me anymore. It felt like I was left behind. And soon enough, it was like I was trying to leave me behind too. 

Hockey was like a way of life. It fueled my life in so many other areas and bled into them – my personality, my confidence, my strengths. I didn’t just lose my job and hockey, but lost my energy, independence, spunk, and confidence. I lost a sense of purpose.

Viewing the video of my injury and my body lying there on the ice I think of the saying, “Leave it all out there,” meaning leave everything you have on the ice or the field. It really does feel that way because it’s like I left myself there that day.

My Legacy Pledge

Those who know me and the depths of my recovery know that one of the things I struggle most with is feeling like I am unable to contribute to the world right now. My work as a physician assistant gave me a sense of purpose because I was able to help others when they needed it the most. It felt like I was doing good and contributing something positive to the world. Being unable to work in addition to losing my independence in other areas of my life due to this brain injury has left me feeling a bit lost because I want to continue to positively contribute to something greater.

I have decided to pledge my brain to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank upon my death. This organization is the largest tissue repository in the world specifically focused on understanding the long-term effects, advancing the prevention and treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 

Pledging my brain is a way for me to contribute to something greater and may be the most meaningful contribution I can make in my lifetime to help those ahead. The research conducted at the brain bank to aid in the TBI crisis, prevention and management of CTE is something I admire and feel very strongly about. 

There have been more than 8,000 pledges thus far with a goal of 10,000 by the end of this year. There is a crucial need for more brain pledges especially women who are underrepresented. Female brain pledges are so important because we are more susceptible to concussions and recovery is often prolonged compared to males. 

This is an incredible way to bring more knowledge to concussions and CTE. The brain bank is also in need of healthy brains to serve as controls in research so this means you can contribute and be part of the solution even if you have not sustained a brain injury.

I highly encourage anyone, athletes or non-athletes, especially those who have suffered a TBI to pledge to bring awareness to this “invisible injury” and potentially be a part of a scientific breakthrough. 

I left the game I love on terms that were not my own but hopefully with my contribution, I can leave it better and safer for generations to come. 

This is my legacy pledge to being part of the solution.

Take the pledge here

Concussion Legacy Foundation Infographic

A Place Disease Cannot Touch

I am here to bring you a powerful message: a message of healing, a message of life. Right now you may feel overwhelmed by the challenges facing you. Fears get magnified, priorities get revaluated. Many of us are confronted for the very first time with our own mortality.  Healing becomes the magic word. Where do we go from here?

There is a place within you that disease cannot touch, a place where you are whole and radiant with health. This is the sacred place within you where the power of Spirit, the Divine, resides. This power within can transform your life. Attune yourself to it by quieting your mind. Become receptive to its guidance by letting it speak through your intuition. 

As you connect with this power you will come to understand that your physical self undergoing a disease experience is only one side of you. Your spirit, the very essence of your being, is whole; healthy, intact.

It is this power in you that will give you strength to overcome your difficulties one step at a time, to let go of preconceived ideas about your health. It will give you the courage to look at your life, heal the wounds of your past, forgive yourself and others, and let go of the anger, resentments and regrets.

It is this power in you that will help you accept yourself totally as you are: your wonderful, creative self, expressed through the gifts you bring to the world, and the limitations of your humanness.

When doubts and worries overwhelm you and trouble your heart, that power within will comfort you, giving you the ability to let go and be free in the moment.

Your focus will shift to the fullness of life; you may rediscover joys lost in the hectic process of everyday living and become grateful for all you have taken for granted.

All it requires are the two most powerful tools in the universe…willingness and belief:

Willingness and belief.

Tullia Forlani Kidde

I heard this one day last year and it resonated with me to my core. I felt it so deeply, like it was speaking directly to me. I was left in tears. I printed it and taped it to my bathroom mirror so I see it every day. “There is a place within you that disease cannot touch,” has become a mantra for me. 

There are so many variables that construct our identities. After so much loss during this recovery, I have struggled with my identity and oftentimes feel consumed by my injury. I haven’t felt like myself for 28 months now and feel very lost at times. It has been so long that I don’t even know what “normal” feels like anymore. 

I have been told to accept that this is my new normal and that I may not get much better than this. I have also been told that there is hope of more improvement. There are so many unknowns. My faith has been tested. There are no guarantees and letting go of the process and preconceived ideas about my recovery is something that I still struggle with.

While my spirit feels broken at times, I hold on to the hope that deep within me somewhere I am radiant with health. Having this as a reminder is something I deeply hold onto. 

A Two-Minute Minor Penalty Changed My Life

It is a hard truth that we don’t truly realize how good we had it or just how grateful we are for certain things or moments in our lives until something tragic happens. I would like to think that I am a self-aware person and notice and am grateful for the little things in life. Even though I feel like I appreciate these moments in my life, I didn’t fully understand how important they were to me until a tragic event happened and changed everything. 

The start of the hockey season was like the feeling of Christmas morning. There was so much excitement and anticipatory jitters. I never thought that something that shaped me into who I am could also tear me apart. 

October 13, 2018. There was a lot of excitement leading up to this day. These would be some of the first scrimmages of the season. It was hard for me to even be able to play this day. I had to make three different shift trades at work to get this day off. Once I finally made all the changes and discovered I could make the games this day, I was elated. It was the best feeling ever. This meant I had to miss our annual hockey fundraiser the night before because I had to work a shift, but it was worth missing that to play with my teammates this Saturday. 

It didn’t cross my mind that this game would result in a life-changing event. 

The chill, the smell of the arena, that initial sound of your skate crunching into the ice after the ice cut. That accompanied by the best teammates, some whom would retire after this season and so I knew I had to really hold on to these moments with them. I thought I would have another game with my team though. 

Unfortunately, this was my last game of ice hockey. I would have tried to ingrain all of those sights, scents, and feelings into my memory and nerves a bit harder if I had known. 

The injury did not occur until the third period, with only about three minutes left. The details were made clearer to me after watching the video footage of it. The video makes me feel sick. I am suddenly flooded with emotions and my heart starts to pound. The sound of my head slamming the ice is a gut punch. 

It was a typical play; a defenseman dumped the puck in the zone. The puck was in the corner, nowhere near me. I turned and all of a sudden there was a stick to my chest and I jolted straight back. Suddenly the back of my head smacked the ice. The player received a two-minute minor penalty.

I heard a crack and then ringing. Everything was black. Everything was ringing. It was like the aftermath of a bomb in a movie – fog and ringing. Uncontrollable tears dripping down the sides of my face onto the ice. While lying on the ice, my eyes were open but all I could see was black. I thought if I closed them and squeezed them tight enough that my vision would come back. I did this several times and it was still black. 

Suddenly there were blurry faces hovering over me – their mouths were moving but I couldn’t hear anything except for the ringing in my ears. I kept desperately squeezing my eyes closed to open them up again and see clearly. It never became clear. Tears continued to pour. 

I couldn’t open my mouth to form words. I cannot remember anything else after other than stumbling to the locker room, being unable to see much. I felt like I was out on a boat on very rough waters reaching out to hold on to anything to keep me up. The walls seemed to be moving and my vision kept tunneling.

I made it to the locker room and removed my equipment with assistance. My Dad drove me home but kept insisting on going to the emergency department. I declined an ED visit. We made it home and I put ice on my neck, took some Tylenol and thought I could just “sleep it off.” I refrained from taking any type of blood thinner in the event I did sustain a brain bleed. 

In typical fashion I tried to minimize and “play through my injury,” in the form of working. I attempted to work a shift in the ED the next morning at 0600 am. It was a huge blur. I remember having to run to the staff bathroom to vomit and dry heave over the toilet. Everything was spinning and the words seemed to be moving on the computer screen. The lights were blinding. The beeps of the monitors sounded like tornado sirens. 

I thought I’d be viewed as weak if taking time off for the injury. Returning to work and pushing through the injury was not smart. I wonder if I had just rested those first crucial 48 hours after the injury if that would have made a difference today. Thankfully, I was sent home from work about half way through the shift. 

My first thought the day after the concussion was to research the best helmet on the market for concussion prevention (even though no helmet can truly prevent a concussion). I had my mind set on playing again. This would just go away. I found myself in denial regarding this head injury, a similar melody that occurred back in college. Was this bargaining? Was I just postponing the inevitable sadness and confusion?

It wasn’t until a couple days later that I started panicking. I took my dog (Walley) out for a walk and could not read the street signs because they were so blurry. I started seeing double. Again, I would squeeze my eyes tight just to open them again and see clearly but it didn’t work. Cars would drive by and I would be completely startled and feel like I was going to pass out. 

Still, I thought I would just need mental rest for a week or two and I’d be back on the ice and back at work. After all, that’s what you are supposed to do for a concussion, right?

My initial symptoms following the injury were dizziness, headache, neck pain, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), blurry and double vision. As days passed more symptoms emerged. It seemed like layer after layer was building and I could do nothing to stop it.

As I was trying to push through it as much as I could there was so much going on underneath the surface that I didn’t realize – a cascade of events that would catch up to me. And they did. It was like a little, isolated fire in my brain and body that quickly erupted into a forest fire. I didn’t realize it but I was slowly falling apart and this would continue for over two years to this day. 

I didn’t realize that the darkest days of my life were brewing.

Don’t Do What I Did: How Minimizing Concussions Caught Up to Me

Seriously, don’t do what I did. 

All of my concussions were sustained during ice hockey. My first concussion occurred in an ice hockey game in high school in 2007. At the time, I was told to just lie in a dark room and rest for a week which I did. I didn’t seem to have any residual or lingering symptoms and carried on like normal one week later. The next concussion occurred later that season. This was also in a game and I lost consciousness for a little over twenty minutes. I was hospitalized and observed after imaging. The doctors said I had “multiple areas of bruising on my brain” that was monitored with more imaging. After about two weeks, I carried on like usual. I didn’t notice any residual symptoms after that.

Freshman year of college I sustained at least two documented concussions, among many other subconcussive head impacts. They seemed like pretty bad hits at the time – my head pinned between a player’s body and the boards. It was just accepted to play down the injury and minimize the symptoms if you had any so you could keep playing. This was pretty much the culture. Maybe it was just competitive hockey player pride – I did it and many of my teammates did it. At the end of the day, you didn’t want to let your teammates down even though you were sacrificing your own health. 

I remember being so dazed and dizzy after a hit. The athletic trainer came over to the bench to evaluate me and I somehow pretended that I was completely fine. I was cleared to go back out like nothing ever happened. I can’t even tell you how many times this happened.

The next weekend we had an away game. The opponent’s athletic trainer was helping me before the game and during the conversation I would try to respond but could not express the words I wanted to say. I knew what I wanted to say but I opened my mouth and I could not express the words. I started panicking. What is happening? I brushed it off and got ready and played in the game. I did not tell anyone.

The summer after freshman year I started experiencing a multitude of issues – lack of focus, memory loss, headaches, struggling to find words. I saw several specialists who did a lot of testing and determined I should take the next year off of school and hockey to allow my brain to heal. I considered it…lightly. I couldn’t be away from my friends and from hockey. I started a few different medications to help with the symptoms and headaches. I went back to school and continued ice hockey. 

I wish I had never done that – taken the head hits so lightly. Don’t do what I did.

Sophomore year was going great in terms of not sustaining any concussions until one game I took a cheap shot. I was completely wrecked. My head slammed the boards. Black out, dizzy, ringing. I got up in an attempt to skate to our bench but every time I made it to my feet I would black out and fall back down. I knew this was bad. At least I acknowledged that. I made it to the bench and left the game where the trainer evaluated me.

Before the sophomore hockey season we took the ImPACT test to have a baseline of cognitive function if we were to sustain a concussion. ImPACT stands for immediate post-concussion assessment and cognitive testing. This is a computerized test that is used to determine when you can return to play based on comparison to your baseline scores prior to the concussion.

After this concussion, I could not be cleared to return to play until I scored better or the same as my baseline testing. I took the test three times and failed. I really struggled with matching and identifying the shapes that flashed on the screen and disappeared.

I was becoming exceedingly frustrated and just wanted to play. It was embarrassing that I couldn’t pass. During my fourth attempt at the test, the athletic trainer left the room and I was alone. I felt like I lucked out. I saw a dry erase marker nearby and thought, “this is how I will pass this test.” I used the dry erase marker to make little notes, dots and write out letters on the computer screen to show me where the disappearing shapes and letters were because otherwise I would never pass – I couldn’t remember anything. I passed using the marker and was cleared to return to play.

An example of an ImPACT test module.

This was my last documented concussion from college and if I did experience any residual effects, I just pushed through it. I didn’t start to develop chronic daily headaches until about a year to a year and a half later. I was shocked when I saw a neurologist who diagnosed me with post concussion syndrome. I asked, “how could this be when my last concussion was over a year ago?” That’s when I first learned the symptoms can be delayed by months to years even. 

At that point I tried so many different medications and really suffered for years. I saw an integrative medicine doctor who discussed the guts involvement after brain injury. More on this later. I changed my diet and the headaches vanished. I was feeling a lot better and felt pretty much back to normal.

Everything was good until the most recent concussion. You think I would have learned from these previous mistakes, but I didn’t. I again tried to push through it and minimize it the best I could. Something I regret to this day.

I often ask myself if I had done things differently then, would I be in the position I am in now? Is my current recovery a cumulative effect of all of these hits and the last one was the final straw? I wish I had done things differently.  

Don’t do what I did – don’t play through an injury, don’t minimize it, be honest because otherwise the protocols that are in place are useless. 

Being a hero doesn’t mean pushing through an injury. Being a hero means being strong enough to be honest and take the injury seriously. 

We only have one, precious brain.

Don’t do what I did. Take it seriously.

Lift the Fog

This journey through my recovery has been painful, draining and heartbreaking to say the least. With progress always comes a setback or a few and it is deeply disheartening. Even with such incredible support I have received from friends and family, it is still so easy to feel alone. This comes back to this injury being essentially unseen to the eye which leads to so much misunderstanding and unfortunately, judgment.

Brain injury has been referred to as the silent epidemic. This is due to lack of public recognition of the complexity despite a staggering 5.3 million Americans alone living with disabilities secondary to brain injury. The effects are often downplayed or even unrecognized and untreated in a lot of cases, so the actual number is likely much greater than that. 

I had experienced this stigma and downplaying of concussions personally in the medical field. I realize now that I was part of the problem. In clinicals I would see a patient who sustained a concussion with my attending and the patient was told to just rest for a week and refrain from use of electronics and send them on their way. Essentially, they were told to sleep it off. I would see a patient in the emergency department with a concussion and advise them to follow up with their primary care physician but I didn’t actually stress the importance of follow up and the possible repercussions. And really, I did know the possibility of these repercussions but not to the extreme that I am experiencing them now.

I didn’t truly know just how complex brain injury was until I experienced it myself.

I had been thinking about starting a blog on and off for some time but the task just seemed too daunting – I can’t read for very long and can’t stare at the computer screen for longer than ten to fifteen minutes every several hours without producing debilitating symptoms. Each day is so energy draining as it is. How could I possibly accomplish this and see it through?

I have been very reluctant to share my story and haven’t spoken openly about my injury and the struggles that followed and continue today. It’s extremely difficult to be completely vulnerable and express what I’ve endured for a few different reasons. These are some very dark days to reveal. With the injury comes a great deal of guilt and shame because it seems like you are trying so hard and doing everything you’re told but still just cannot progress like you want to. This recovery somehow feels like a moral or personal failing.

I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me and really just attempting to fully explain it to others is draining in itself. Only a few close people in my life know the depths of my recovery and what I have experienced. Keeping my story and journey private is due to several things – not wanting to worry others or let people down, not wanting others to feel bad for me, feeling shame that I am still going through this recovery. Sharing my story openly is a very uncomfortable feeling but the end goal of helping at least one person in the process is worth it. 

I paint sometimes to get lost in something and to express how I’m feeling in a way words just can’t. As it is nearly impossible to truly put into words what every day feels like in this recovery, I painted this as a means of this expression. 

Among many other symptoms I experience on a daily basis, brain fog is one of the big ones. This is one the most common symptoms of concussion. You feel like you are slowed down, in a fog, in a haze, not yourself.

One day I sat, frustrated, sad, anxious and thought maybe I should try to release this through a painting. And bit by bit, my painting came together…an outpouring of all of these feelings.  

After painting this, I realized that I should just do it – share my writing and start this blog. I have struggled with the feeling like I am not contributing much to this world right now. Shortly after I painted this, it hit me – I should use my writing to contribute and hopefully help at least one other person no matter the hurdles in the process. I looked at my finished painting and it was raw and deep, a depiction of my recovery. 

And so the name of my blog was inspired by my painting. Lift the Fog – that is what I would call it.

This is a message of lifting the fog – of traumatic brain injury misconceptions, concussion stigma, but also providing some clarity for those struggling in silence, who feel alone. 

My hope is that my experience can lift the fog and cultivate the compassion and awareness that is needed to aid in this silent epidemic and bring hope to those suffering. 

This is my first step to being part of the solution. Whether you are living with a brain injury or are the loved one of someone who is, may you find ways to better support, educate and spread awareness and better your life in the process.

Feel free to share in the comments below or connect with me here.

Allow Me to Introduce Myself

My name is Drew Chernisky. I started this first post diving in really deep into my recovery but I stopped myself and realized that is definitely not me. I am not a diagnosis and I am not my brain injury – something I am still working on. 

My name is Drew Chernisky. I started this first post diving really deep into my recovery but I stopped myself and realized that is definitely not me as a person and certainly not my identity. I am not a diagnosis and I am not my brain injury – something I am still working on. 

I am 30 years young and a Cleveland native. I am the youngest of ten children. Sometimes, jokingly, I am referred to as “number ten,” though to this day I am still mostly referred to as “baby Drew.” 

Growing up, we lived in a house with a lot of land which was great for any and all sports. My siblings and I would form teams and play a little bit of everything – running bases, wiffle ball, baseball, basketball, street hockey. It was because of my older siblings that I got into sports, but specifically, ice hockey.

Flashback to my early years. My first skates were laced up when I was just three years old. I would never look back; it was quickly ingrained into my being. It was a part of me then and is still a part of me now. I admit I am still wrestling with my relationship with ice hockey because without it, would I be in the condition I am in now? Would my life be forever changed?

Beast Mode

Growing up, I traveled all over the country playing ice hockey and frequented Canada a lot to play in tournaments. It was something to always look forward to – the road trips, bonding with teammates, locker room music, endless snacks, playing mini hockey in the hotel hallways until we got in trouble for “making too much noise.” This passion took off like wildfire.

I played boy’s hockey up until bantams and then joined an all-girls team which I played on through high school up until my senior year when I transferred schools to play on a team which really prepared me for college hockey. My first two concussions occurred during high school hockey. 

I played college hockey at Salve Regina University and studied biology, chemistry and music. Hockey was always that constant thing that kept me grounded. I sustained three documented concussions during my college career. The key word there is “documented.” I would later find out that the constant thing that grounded me was also the same thing to change…everything. I felt suddenly uprooted.

Salve Hockey

I spent most of my free time devoted to my friends and family and maintaining those relationships. Besides hockey I spent my time traveling, going to sporting events (mostly baseball and hockey games), concerts, working out, getting lost reading a book, playing my violin and making music…the usual things a twenty-something year old would enjoy. Where I’m at now, these seemingly little and easy things were such a luxury then.

After college I took a year off to study for medical school and gain some experience. I traveled to Kenya where I volunteered in a hospital and an orphanage. When I returned, I worked as a medical scribe in a local emergency department. 

Nairobi, Kenya

I decided to go the physician assistant (PA) route. It was a dream come true when I was accepted. I obtained my Master of Science degree in Physician Assistant Studies at Ohio Dominican University. After graduating, I landed my first job at the Cleveland Clinic in the emergency department. This was another dream come true. This is where I worked for nearly three years up until my life-changing injury. 

White Coat Ceremony

During the time period between college and becoming a PA, I only played pick up hockey maybe two times total. It wasn’t until randomly that I found a local women’s team to play on in 2016. The team was Team CLE, consisting of former college athletes and those who just wanted to have fun. And that’s what it was – fun. It was something I craved on the weekends, something to just completely turn off my mind and get away. It was the perfect outlet. Then my world changed.

October 13, 2018, I sustained a concussion in an ice hockey game. Since that time, I have lost my job, seen countless specialists, traveled all over to seek treatment, and there is still no set time frame for my recovery. In the past 27 months I have been to 275 appointments plus one week in Georgia and one week in Chicago for brain rehabilitation. I have been prescribed around 20 different medications with very rough side effect profiles and tried countless supplements. I have lost a lot of my independence being unable to drive and work.

I have experienced many dead ends but have also encountered some positives and met some great people and providers along the way. I will explain what has helped me thus far and what hasn’t. Some of the treatments set me back big…like hospitalization big, but maybe you could also learn from those too if you are considering one of those routes. 

If you are suffering from a traumatic brain injury of any sort or the aftermath labeled post concussion syndrome, you may be feeling alone, disheartened, helpless, hopeless, terrified. You may be wondering if you will ever be the same again. If you know someone suffering you may be wondering what exactly that person is experiencing because it is so difficult to articulate and you may be wondering how to be there to support them. This is a learning process, for both the one experiencing the injury but also those supporting them. I am continuously learning something new about my own recovery as time goes by.

I hope my personal experience enduring this recovery can shed some light and also that my background as a medical practitioner can provide a unique perspective. My hope is that my experience with many different treatment modalities may guide you into a direction you may have never considered and maybe one that could spark your recovery into an upward trend. At the very least, may you feel a sense of community and connection.

If you are the loved one of someone struggling through this recovery, know that a little empathy and compassion can go a long way. What you see on the surface is never the whole story.

Every word is filled with what is left of me.

Thank you for coming to my site. Follow along on this journey by subscribing and share with anyone who may be of benefit.

A major support through my recovery, my dog Walley.