Head knocks: One man’s cautionary story of what not to do

A guest article from life member and former Presider, Dave Newick

I felt like it would never end. The headaches, nausea and tiredness just wouldn’t stop. It had been three months since my head injury and I still couldn’t work a full day without having to have a nap. I would literally drag myself away from the office at 2PM, struggling to find the energy to put one foot in front of the other, to get to the car and have a nap, before deeming myself safe enough to drive.

The psychologists were at least reporting that my cognitive function, particularly around memory and logic, had improved from a frightening 5% to somewhere more like 50% but I was still hearing things come out of my mouth that were just not me. Weird, angry, emotional statements or simply words that wouldn’t make sense together or were slurred like I had been drinking.

My history of ignoring head knocks and playing on at an amateur social level had caught up with me, and I was paying a price. Deep down I was scared. Very scared that this was my new reality. That the most precious thing I had – my health and particularly my brain, would determine a new future which was a long way from the success I had known up until that point.

It started, when as a Defender playing football, I was paired with a large centre back colleague who would bowl me over to get the ball, go through me to make a tackle and ignore my calls when a long one came in and clatter heads with me. Not the most intelligent thing to do, but that was how he played and off the field he was a great guy. I got two to three solid head knocks a season which dazed me, drew blood or created lumps.

Added to this was an event a year or two before. I had gone up for a ball, won it, and on the way down got my head caught between one of my players and an opposition player shoulders. Unconscious for an initial 30 seconds or so according to the side line, I woke and thought immediately about the ball, so jumped up and immediately was on a 45 degree slope staggering 10 metres or so before collapsing and being unconscious for a good 2-3 minutes. I woke to a blurry haze of red and white and one central figure in black trying to get me to tell him how many fingers he was holding up. We had a proper ref for that game because it was a cup semi-final or something, so he was controlling the situation.

Upon ‘waking up’ it was important to get the game going, so after I had been dragged to my feet, he re-started the game. The problem was I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing and couldn’t figure out which way we were playing for the next 5 minutes. I got a few weak calls from my team mates saying ‘Dave you should go off’ but not wanting to let them down and having no idea of the horrors to come, I told them I was fine and played on, even heading the ball and putting in a few tackles. Surprisingly now, looking back on it, the ref didn’t say anything, take me to the sideline, or force me to stop playing, despite being clearly unconscious for a period.

Amazingly I had no after effects from that episode. A slight headache on the Monday and Tuesday but I went to practice that week and played the following Saturday.

What I didn’t know was the cumulative effect of successive head knocks long term. Each knock adding to the other until you are a ticking time bomb waiting for the big one, that final knock that will push you over the edge.

For me, that final knock happened playing summer football. In a feisty, competitive game a long one came from their keeper to their solid striker up front. I raced forward to get to the ball with the advice of my coaches down the years ringing in my ears ‘just focus on the ball. Nothing else matters. Get up and win it and get it away.’ Nearing the moment of heading the ball, I arched my neck and whipped it forward to make a solid connection. However, coming from my left side was the striker and he jumped in front of me. I made a very solid connection with my left front temple to the back of his head, ripping a flap of skin off him. The sound, according to my son, was like a rifle shot. So loud that play stopped on other fields around us as people wondered what had happened.

I don’t really remember too much of what happened immediately after that. I was on the ground but had no idea how I had got there. I woke up in the foetal position and bizarrely was still so fired up from the game, wanted to show the striker, with whom I had been having a right old tussle, that I was tougher than he was, that he wasn’t going to beat me and so tried to get up. My legs were a bit wobbly but my competitive spirit took over and I told everyone I was fine and didn’t need to come off.

Except I wasn’t fine. Really, really, not fine. When I left the field, I couldn’t see properly out of my left eye. It was jagged like my cornea had fractured and had a white line running through it. The lump on my head was large and red and my neck was very stiff and sore. The lads asked me after the game if I was OK and I said ”Yes. Absolutely.” So we headed in for the obligatory rehydration in the form of a couple of beers.

Driving home an hour or two later, I found myself unable to stay in a lane properly and remember tooting the horn and giving the fingers to people I was overtaking who wouldn’t get out of my way on a suburban street.

Downplaying it all to my wife, I headed to bed and woke up the next day feeling very odd. Fuzzy and disconnected like noises were coming from far away. I couldn’t concentrate on simple tasks and had a cracking headache and sore neck.

Heading into work, it didn’t take too long for me to figure out that I probably needed some medical attention. I rang the doctor and after explaining what had happened, he said I should get in to see him. He was in Epsom, which is 10 minutes car journey way from the Auckland CBD by car. Leaving the office, I ‘came too’ in Pt Chevalier which is a long way and in the wrong direction from Epsom, an hour and a half later.

Explaining what had happened to my doctor, he diagnosed mild concussion because I seemed to have some recall of the actual event itself and gave me 4 days off work.

Heading home, I started to find the sunshine, the noise and busy-ness around me was hard to take. I couldn’t actually process all of the information everyday life was throwing at me.

For the next two weeks, I couldn’t watch TV, listen to the radio, read anything, be on a computer, take phone calls or be in strong light without getting massive headaches and nausea. I began saying bizarre things and became emotional. I knew I was doing it, but I was powerless to stop it. My disconnected brain was all over the place. I couldn’t sleep properly and was exhausted at 2PM.

What was supposed to be four days off, stretched into 2.5 weeks off and I was starting to get worried.

My doctor put me in touch with a fantastic specialist Head Injury firm, who assigned a wonderful therapist called Sarah. Sarah explained to me that the history of not looking after my previous head knocks had a cumulative effect, and that while the latest episode was probably correctly diagnosed as mild it had been upgraded to ‘moderate’ with some symptoms more like a ‘severe’ case. The length of time to be back to normal would be dependent on a few things, such as the amount of stress I would be under and the quiet time I could give it to mend itself.

This of course was problematic. I was the CEO of a busy technology recruitment firm and led the football club Birkenhead United. These were both full on jobs, busy, stressful and needing my input and energy constantly. Yet I had none to give. I was exhausted and went to the Acupuncturist 3 x a week, together with physio and regular psychologist appointments and CAT scans to check my progress.

The actual injury was diagnosed as a front of brain injury; with a back of brain injury caused by the whiplash effect of my brain hitting the front of my skull and then bouncing back and hitting the back. Whether I further compounded this by hitting my head on the ground as I went down I will never know. My neck injury was a classic whiplash injury with torn muscles underneath the base of my skull on the left side.

At one of the psychologist appointments I remember bursting into tears in sheer frustration that I couldn’t remember where pieces of a puzzle were supposed to be. This was a low for me. I scored 5% in that test and usually I would blitz these sorts of things, priding myself that I was smart and could use my intellectual horsepower to resolve anything life threw at me. When you stare down the barrel of brain impairment, it is a scary place and I had a new respect for head injury patients as a result of car accidents or similar.

After three months, through the mental fog that I seemed to be in permanently, my usual positivity had deserted me and I was starting to think this was not going to get better. My employer was brilliant and very understanding but my team, company clients and the football club just needed me. I couldn’t give them what they needed and didn’t know how or when I would get better.

Somewhat chillingly, I learnt that some people actually don’t recover from concussion and carry symptoms for life. Was this my future? Was this person that I had become, the shouty, emotional, moody, disconnected guy the new me?

On the football front there was none of that for me anymore. I simply couldn’t go through this again. I couldn’t put my employer, my team and most importantly my family through this. Nothing was more important to me than getting back to being myself. Yet I felt annoyed that an event had decided my fate for me. That I didn’t retire on my terms. That I was still capable of playing and that had been taken away from me.

As the specialist said to me, next time it will be worse. It may even be a brain bleed and those can kill you.

There was to be a next time. Coaching my youth team and setting up a goal for practice, the lads were mucking around and one of them let loose a top of laces shot just as I lifted the goal up and it hit me fair and square on the left side of my head. I went down, conscious but really struggling to see with everything going blurry. After a few minutes it cleared but I remember thinking “No it can’t end like this.” I seriously thought that shot may have killed me. Waking in the morning I checked the pillow for any blood and was pleasantly surprised not to find any.

But things did start to improve from the lows of the first few months. At the six month mark I had a marginal improvement in my energy levels and seemed to heading in the right direction. A big step forward was seeing the brilliant Dr Xin Xu, who told me that my neck injury was actually restricting the arteries getting fresh blood to my brain. Working on this was a real step forward and I started to see improvements straight away, but it would take another three months before I could work at my usual energy levels and say to myself that I was back.

The physical effect of those nine months, and their toll on me was telling. I felt and looked like I had gone through the hardest time in my life and actually I had. I’m certain I aged a few years during that period.

I went back and played summer football to end things on my terms and try and lose the fear. But it didn’t work. Every time a ball came in, I shied away from it. I wouldn’t go into tackles, wouldn’t head the ball and if a shot came in, I would cover my head with my arms. Touchingly, I recall people on the side line seeing a ball coming towards me and yelling ‘Dave don’t head it!!’ That part of my life was over, but at least I had faced my demons down and gone out on my terms.

Today, 5 years later, I still suffer symptoms. My neck is tight permanently and I now get headaches where I got none before. My memory is not what it was and when I am tired I still struggle to compute things. I think about getting another knock to my head constantly and have become risk averse.

What can I take away from this? What can I tell you to stop you going through the hell that I did?

Firstly, treat head injuries as serious. All of them. Even the little knocks. They are cumulative. If you take a knock and especially if you are dazed or concussed, leave the field and don’t come back on. Seek medical advice. Do the stand down periods and don’t be pressured by anyone, into playing before you are ready.

If you’re coaching, refereeing or if you are a parent and you see someone take a head knock, follow the protocols. If you don’t know what they are, learn them. You have a duty of care to your players to keep them safe, and that extends to the individuals themselves. When you have a head knock you don’t know what you are doing so don’t let players fool you into saying they are fine, because they may not be and probably don’t know one way or another.

You get one brain and it controls everything. Look after it. No game is worth a lifetime of impaired brain function.

Most of all realise that everything you take for granted now, your ability to be yourself, to think properly, to have a normal relationship with your loved ones can all disappear. We’re not immune. We’re not bullet proof. Things can change in the blink of an eye and a new reality can take over your life.

Be fearless but don’t let your ego make short term decisions that can have long term impacts on your life.

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