What Would You Risk?
You are sitting in a lecture hall with 300 students; jotting down notes like you would in any other class. Then, you feel a blinding pain behind your eyeballs that mutates into a stabbing spasm that spreads throughout your head. You have around half a minute to collect yourself and find an isolated area so that you don’t become a distraction. The room starts spinning. You’re trying your hardest to stumble out of the door before your eyes roll to the back of your head and your limbs go numb.
At this point, you’re trying to stay conscious as long as you can while seeming as normal as you can but it’s impossible. You can feel the eyes of the class on you. All 600 of them. Staring. As you get to the door, your legs go out from under you and you hit the floor. You are having a seizure. And that is just the beginning. For three to ten agonizing minutes, you’re going to be on the floor violently convulsing while barely holding consciousness. You are aware of what your body is doing but you have no control over your own movements.
People are panicking but no one knows exactly what they should be doing to help you. Little do they know that there is no helping you now. After this horrific episode, your body finally relaxes, releasing all tension. Your eyes come back forward while trying to regain vision. Your brain is still throbbing and sharp pains run down your spine. You are completely and utterly exhausted. This is a normal thing in your life now. Living day-to-day has become hell. At the peak of these episodes, you would have 5-6 a day, randomly. They have taken over your life. The worst part of it all was that these episodes were the result of a trauma that occurred while doing what you loved most in the world. This has been my reality for more than two years.
“How did you get a concussion in volleyball?”
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked this. And every time I’m asked, the answer remains the same. For those that don’t know a lot about volleyball, an average collegiate serve is going about 40 miles per hour, which means that a hit is easily double that speed. Now, imagine yourself on the receiving end of that swing with less than a second to protect your face.
We are in a time where concussions are finally getting some recognition but there are still so many misconceptions and stigmas that surround this injury. The reason that I decided to tell my story is to shed light on what is truly at risk when athletes step onto the court. If there was one thing I wish I could have done differently, it would’ve been to learn and truly understand the damage that can be done when athletes don’t take care of their heads. Maybe if I would have done this, I wouldn’t have developed multiple cognitive problems and my body wouldn’t have undergone hundreds of seizures in the last two years.
I committed to play volleyball at UNC when I was a sophomore in high school. After being an Under Armour and USAV All-American, my main goal was to earn playing time as a true freshman. I had been waiting for this opportunity since I started playing when I was eight-years-old. For 10 straight years, I dedicated myself to my sport to get the chance to play at the Division I level. Through two hip surgeries, broken bones, and too many sprained ankles to count, the only thing I cared about was playing for the University of North Carolina. Finally, my time came to show what I could do. My freshman year felt like a storybook season. Although our team had seven seniors, I was lucky enough to play in every game of the season. We clinched the ACC title and finished the season in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament. I was living out a dream year and I am so thankful for the girls I was able to play with and learn from. The seniors taught us how to give everything to the program, and the rest of our team did not want to let them down. With my class of seven freshmen and the rest of the team, we were ready to take over where the seniors left off and win the next three ACC Championships.
Fast-forward to August of my sophomore year. We had a long summer of lifts and open gyms, so I was anxious about the start of our preseason. On the second day of preseason practices, we were doing defensive digging drills during our morning practice. I was at the right-back position when my coach hit a hard-driven ball at me. As I was diving for the ball, I looked down as the ball bounced on the ground and hit me on the right side of my face. I stood up trying to get my right eye back into focus but the gym seemed to be spinning. My coach asked me if I was okay and I responded with thumbs up, but it sounded as if he was a mile away. For the rest of the practice, I had a sharp pain going from the back of my head through my right eye but I thought that was to be expected when you get hit in the face. I finished the rest of the practice and went to my trainer after to ask for some eye drops since I still couldn’t focus with my right eye. My trainer asked me if my head hurt. I reluctantly said yes so she told me to rest. I would have to do the concussion test before our afternoon practice. I went back to the hotel and laid in the dark for two hours.
When I went to treatment before our second practice, I started preparing myself to take the initial concussion test. Now, if you are an athlete or know an athlete then you know that most athletes lie to their trainers. We tell them that we don’t feel that stabbing, throbbing, or aching pain that we most definitely always feel. That pain is part of playing a sport. There is not a college athlete in this country that doesn’t have some type of pain, so we learn that if we tell our trainers every time that we’re feeling that pain, then we just won’t play. So, I did what we all do. I lied through the initial test.
“Do you have a headache?” No.
“Have you experienced any dizziness?” No.
“Do you have any light or noise sensitivity?” No.
My trainers knew how I was going to answer so they told me I could practice, but only in the drills and not live play. I walked into the gym for practice and the noise made it feel like I was in a sold-out stadium. The lights, whistles, and voices were deafening. About 30 minutes into practice, we started a drill where I set my right-side hitters. With my coach tossing balls at me, I set and then spun around to see where the ball went. Set and spin, set and spin, set and spin. In seconds, every one of my symptoms intensified and I stumbled to the bathroom. I threw up multiple times as I sat on the bathroom floor. Despite all of this, I knew I could push through. As I walked out of the bathroom, my trainer was waiting outside. She sent me home with nausea medication and told me that I had a concussion. This wasn’t my first. In high school, I had two diagnosed and at least three undiagnosed (I did not go to the doctor), so I expected it would be only a week and I would be back on the court.
The next eight days were not what I expected at all. Unlike my other concussions, I was not able to do any simple tasks. Going outside, walking into the gym, or even just lying in bed, became overwhelmingly painful. Per my doctors’ orders, I laid in a dark room for three days. Even after three days, my mom had to fly out from Colorado to move me into my dorm because my headache was too much to bear. Even though I was in constant pain, my only concern was how my team was doing during preseason. I wanted more than anything to be back out there. I went through the “return-to-play” protocol and while I did start feeling better, I still felt off. Like a fog that never seemed to lift. When I finally got back on the court, we only had a few practices before we left for Wisconsin for the Big Ten Challenge. I will be the first one to say I wasn’t ready. Every time I went to set a ball, it wasn’t where I thought it was. My depth perception was failing but I kept telling myself that it was going to get better.
I just had to play through it.
I practiced the next few days but I was still nowhere close to how I should’ve been playing. But I just told myself that I was playing poorly because I had been out for a week and a half. We flew to Wisconsin for the Big Ten Challenge. The day before we played, we were scrimmaging in Wisconsin’s gym. I was at the right-back position when our former ACC Freshman of the Year went up and took a hard swing right at me. Because my depth perception was still off, I didn’t realize the ball was coming straight at my face until it was inches away. I tried to whip my head back but I was too late. This hit didn’t feel as bad as the first one but there was a serious throbbing pain behind my eyes that wasn’t there before. The next day my trainer asked me about the hit. At this point, I was only going to hurt the team if I was still on the court, so I told her that my symptoms hadn’t fully gone away. After that, my doctor and trainer decided that I wouldn’t play that weekend.
We returned to Chapel Hill that Sunday. During my first class on Monday, I started feeling my right eye flutter. It was like a twitch that would randomly hit me and then suddenly go away. I didn’t think much of it because I was still more focused on my other concussion symptoms. Then on Tuesday, we had film before practice. As we started watching, I felt incredibly dizzy and both of my eyes started fluttering. I stood up and stumbled out of the room. I heard the voices of my weight training coach and trainer so I called out to them as they rushed to lay me down on the ground. I couldn’t see anything. The fluttering finally stopped when my trainer took me to the locker room but as soon as I sat down, it started again. They rushed me to the emergency room.
I told the ER nurses that I had a concussion and my eyes wouldn’t stop trembling. My trainer asked for a CAT scan of my head to rule out a brain bleed but we were told that the ER was over capacity that night. In the ER, they found me a bed in the hallway. During the next four hours, the fluttering in my eyes didn’t stop, but I was finally given a “head cocktail”. From what I remember, it was a nerve relaxing concoction. My eyes finally stopped fluttering and I could see again. My trainer had stayed with me through the whole visit and helped discharge me from the hospital. After she drove me back to my dorm, I called my mom. I told her I was worried. Really worried.
The next two months is when everything went downhill. I went to a neurologist who only saw me for about ten minutes. He told me that I had nerve damage in the back on my right eye from the injury. He sent me home with medication that was supposed to stop the twitch. I took the medication for two weeks until I felt myself falling into a hole that seemed impossible to get out of. During this time, I would have three or four “episodes” a day. The “episodes” were when I would get so dizzy that I couldn’t stand and my eyes would roll back in my head. Additionally, my eyelids continued to flutter and these episodes would last from 2-15 minutes at a time. The medication I had been given was not helping the episodes and had a serious effect on my mood. I started feeling hopeless and lost which was concerning. I was spiraling downwards but I was so close to the situation that I could not recognize how I was feeling. After talking to my family and doing some research, I realized that the medication I was taking had side effects of mood changes and depression. Immediately, I called my doctor and told him how I was feeling. He told me to double my dosage of the medication, so as soon as I got off the phone, I called my team doctor and requested a new neurologist. This was the beginning of a long string of medications that seemed to always have hidden side effects.
While I was waiting to get in with a new neurologist, I was bedridden for almost a month. Thankfully, I had overwhelming support around me. My boyfriend would drive from Charlotte on the weekends to take care of me. In his absence, my roommates and teammates would bring me food and take me to my doctors’ appointments. Even with all the people around me, I still felt the loneliest I had ever felt in my life. My parents were begging me to come back to Colorado so we could figure out what was going on and I could heal. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine that as an option. If I went home and stopped taking classes, then I was giving up my life because of an injury.
I thought that would make me a failure.
So, I just pushed through as I had always done with injuries.
Over the course of that month, the “episodes” escalated. When they hit, I would collapse to the ground and my entire body convulsed. I couldn’t see what was going on and I lost control of my body but I could hear people around me telling me to breathe and get through it. I was having these episodes three to four times a day. The worst part was that I had no warning when or where my episodes would happen. I was still trying to stay in a few classes, because if I was focusing on school than I wasn’t thinking about what my body was going through. Every morning, I would wake up and assess if I would be able to make it to a class or two that day. Thankfully, one of my teammates was in all three classes that I was enrolled in. If I felt an episode coming on during class, I would grab her arm and she would lead me out of the classroom. As long as I could get out of the classroom, I was fine. One day I was taking an exam in a 300-person lecture hall. My eyes started trembling, so I grabbed my exam and started stumbling down the aisle. I threw my test toward my professor and as I was pushing out of the door, I collapsed. Two of my teammates ran down the aisles to hold my head while it bounced against the floor. I came to with my professor holding my hand and my teammates holding my head. As tears rolled down my face, I was so confused, in pain, but mostly, I was embarrassed.
My team doctor was trying to get me into different neurologists to find a solution. When I didn’t think things could get worse, on Halloween, they did. At practice that day, I was sitting in the stands when I felt an episode coming on. My trainer rushed over to me as my teammate laid me down on the ground. During the episode, my chest started tightening and I couldn’t breathe. After this episode, my trainer told my teammate that she needed to videotape it because it looked like a seizure and I needed to go to the hospital ASAP. That night, I had another episode and my teammate did just that. She sent the video to my boyfriend and my mom, showing that there were points during the episode that I couldn’t breathe and that my face was turning purple. The second my mom saw the video, she was on the first flight out to North Carolina. Within two days, I was at the hospital. They hooked me up to an EEG (brain scan) and I was there for five days. During those five days, we realized that right before I had an episode my heart rate would spike up to 180+ beats per minute. Keep in mind, my normal resting heart rate is between 60-70 beats. From what they saw on the EEG, the seizures started because of my heart and not my brain waves. When my heart rate spikes, my body shuts down, has a seizure, and tries to reset.
The last hospital visit was in November 2017. From November to March, the seizures started decreasing in frequency where I was having one a day that was usually anywhere between 6-8 minutes. For some reason, I still was determined to be back on the court the next year. I’m not sure if this was a way of me emotionally coping with my life being turned upside down or if I was just being naive, but I kept telling my coach that all this was going to stop and I was going to play again. Although my trainers and team doctor worked tirelessly to figure out how to relieve some of my pain, they were unable to find a solution. In May 2018, I went to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. At the clinic, I told the neurologist that I would do anything to be back on the court, but she told me that I would never be a college athlete again.
My heart broke that day and it felt like I lost a part of myself.
The thing that gave me purpose in life was brutally ripped away from me. For the first time in my life, there was no fight left to be fought. That day in May changed my life forever, there is no denying that, but this enemy inside of my head is merely a chapter in the book of my life.
Since my medical retirement in May 2018, I’ve had to change my life to accommodate my sickness. The cognitive problems from my concussions have still not completely gone away. I still have memory and concentration issues that I am working on constantly. I am on seizure medication but I still have a seizure at least once every two weeks. I also live with a constant headache that elevates to a migraine on most days. My family and boyfriend have had to help me with my emotional and physical state every day. I am so thankful for them and my UNC family. My teammates, coaches, trainers, and doctors have truly been a blessing to me for the last three years. My coach asked me to stay on the team as an undergraduate assistant coach and I am so glad he did because I could not turn my back on volleyball. So now I live through the players on the court while I remember my days under the lights. As far as my condition is concerned, there is still no exact diagnosis for what I have and my doctors don’t know the extent of the damage from my concussions. What I thought was only the beginning of a promising career came to a screeching halt. I had to get up, dust myself off, and keep on living my life.
This all started with two hits to my head. While doctors and concussion clinics work to figure out what happens to our brains when we get a concussion, the sad truth is that they just don’t understand the human brain yet. They don’t have the technology to know what can happen to a college athlete with multiple head traumas and they know even less about the female brain. While the last three years haven’t been easy, I have learned so much about myself through all of this.
Most importantly, I’ve learned that I never was just a volleyball player.
Because of all of this I had to relearn how to live my life. The normal college experience, as well as any normal experience in general, was taken away from me that day. Things that I never thought of before could be the reason that I have a seizure. Exercise, large crowds, flashing or bright lights, any kind of stress, loud music, going out with friends, the list is endless. These episodes tried to define my life.
But they won’t.
There is so much more to me than that. I am telling my story to show people what student-athletes risk every day. I put myself in serious danger because I didn’t realize the consequences of trying to “push through.” If you had told me four years ago that two concussions could cause seizures, memory loss, and lifelong cognitive problems, I wouldn’t have believed you. When I was playing, the game is all I cared about. I didn’t think about the long-lasting consequences that concussions could bring in volleyball or any sport. So next time you are watching your favorite team, remember that those are people in the uniforms. People with problems and injuries that you will never see in the stadium or on the screen. We sacrifice more than most know to play the game we love and for most like me, these sacrifices will follow us the rest of our lives.
- Mariah Evans