PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — If Amanda Kessel does nothing else in her storied career, she’s already done a rare public service in the world of sport.
She’s spoken often and openly about concussions.
Athletes and their teams are usually happy to talk about ACL injuries, or torn rotator cuffs; it’s a badge of honor to be hurt and then fight to return to play.
Brain injuries? Still too taboo. When Gisele Bundchen told CBS last year that her husband, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, has had concussions, it turned into a weeks-long controversy. “I mean, he has concussions,” she said. “I mean, he has concussions pretty much. We don’t talk about it, but he does have concussions.”
More than a month later, Brady was asked by ESPN about his wife’s comments and he dodged. The NFL even released a statement on it: “There are no records that indicate that Mr. Brady suffered a head injury or concussion, or exhibited or complained of concussion symptoms.”
It’s not just Brady. Just last month, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton fell to his knees after a big hit in a playoff game – a clear sign of a concussion – and it was later diagnosed as an eye injury. Maybe he did indeed have an eye injury, but it often feels as if teams would defer and deflect than admit a brain injury.
Kessel will not shy away from the topic. She has suffered mightily from a concussion and she nearly retired because of it. She was not at all sure if she would be here, starting on the top line for Team USA in the 2018 Olympics. She missed a lot of time in recovery and nothing was certain.
Asked in September if she still has headaches, she said, “Yeah, I have headaches.”
Then Kessel elaborated, saying she occasionally has migraines.
“It comes about randomly,” she said. “I know if I don’t hydrate I’m more likely to get a headache. It doesn’t scare me at all.”
It’s not that she doesn’t take the topic of brain injury seriously; quite the opposite. She is willing to talk about it because she knows many young athletes are scared, and many parents worry that a hit to the head in a sporting event is the beginning of a lifetime of neurological issues. Checking in women’s hockey is illegal, but one 2010 study showed 25 percent of injuries in the sport are due to concussions. That’s far higher than even football. The topic is scary to all of us, athletes and otherwise, but it only makes it scarier when the best athletes in the world and their teams appear to suppress the truth.
“She didn’t ignore her concussion, or try to deny it,” says Dr. Mark Herceg, a director at the Center for Concussion at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Connecticut. “She took her time, allowed her brain to heal, sought out treatment, and focused her efforts in rehab to recover.”
It wasn’t always this easy or comfortable for Kessel to talk. Her problems were most likely triggered by a fall into the boards four years ago, leading up to the Sochi Games. She played in the Olympics but her symptoms hit hard in the weeks after. She sat out her next season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, she lost weight, and she withdrew from her normal social life.
“As someone who has played through a lot of injuries, it wasn’t until suffering a concussion that I fully understood the importance of being 100 percent healthy when I’m on the ice,” Kessel said in a statement at the time. “Unfortunately, that isn’t the case right now.”
This is where things often spiral for athletes with concussions. You lose the sport you love, you retreat from your routine, you get down, you wonder if the head trauma is causing the sadness, and that makes the anxiety even worse. The line between the physical and the psychological is blurred, and the hill to recovery feels more and more steep.
Kessel found a doctor in Pittsburgh who encouraged her to get active and stay active – even if it’s not easy.
“He pushed me through it, assured me I was OK,” Kessel said. “It wasn’t anything that was wrong. I kinda learned, ‘I am OK. I feel good.’ To know if I’m playing hockey and I feel crappy every day – I could be sitting on my couch and have a headache with that, too. It took a while to get to that point. I had to push through a lot of things.”
In a way, Kessel used her mind to help heal her brain. She didn’t have to feel helpless, even on the bad days.
“I’m much more aware,” she said. “If I don’t sleep a lot or I need more water, those are things I can control.”
Kessel returned to play for the Gophers in 2016, nearly three years after winning the Patty Kazmaier Award as the best player in women’s hockey. Then, last year, she won MVP of the NWHL All-Star Game and won gold at World Championships with Team USA. Now she’s here. She started the Americans’ first Olympic game on the top line.
It could have been very different. Her final international game could have been the 2014 overtime loss to Canada in the gold medal match – a game she still refuses to watch.
Instead she is a de facto advocate for women’s hockey and for athletes who are suffering from concussions and concussion symptoms.
“She didn’t allow her injury to define who she is,” says Herceg, who did not treat Kessel but has treated many women’s hockey players for concussion symptoms. “That is so important. We are more than our injury. She demonstrated that and that’s why she is so helpful to all injured athletes going through recovery.”
During her time off to heal, there were more than 1,000 days between Team USA goals for Kessel. The way she is playing now, there might only be hours before the next one.
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