Last June, I had the pleasure of speaking at a press conference at Lincoln Financial Field in support of Pennsylvania State Representative Tim Briggs’ proposed concussion management legislation. I was an eighteen-year old who had been researching concussions in sports for nearly ten months at that point—a task that I engaged in to further educate myself and others on the subject at hand; a project that would essentially close many doors in my past that had been left open for too long. But as I situated myself beside the podium at this press conference, I had no idea what kind of story the young woman sitting to my left had to say. Of course, throughout my research, I understood that others have been through worse—much worse—than what I had experienced, but never did I think I would meet someone I could relate to. It was even more than just relating to, for this individual shared a heartbreaking story to the public. She was at the press conference for the same reason as myself, and that was to promote the need for concussion legislation in our state, but she did more than that. Her words were more than the cover to a bill. Her words were the voice of the sports concussion crisis.
Today, Tracy Yatsko, a twenty-three-year old woman from Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, is still fighting the repercussions of an injury that ended her high school athletic career. Six years removed from the moment of her last concussion, Yatsko represents the qualities of strength and motivation, for her battle has not been one that has been easy. Sure, I have heard of stories in which athletes have sustained decisively fatal blows to the head. But when I talk to this woman, and when I think about her story, the only words that I can describe how I have perceived her story is hell on earth. Why did this situation in which Yatsko found herself within come to be?
2005 was a year, with regards to concussion awareness, that was still present in the sports’ ‘Era of Good Feelings.’ There was not much to worry about, and though there were stories creeping out of the media regarding concussions in football, there was not much of a worry in other athletic activities. There really wasn’t much consideration as to what a concussion was. It was merely an injury that was ignorantly summarized as a headache; a distraction; a joke. And with such stigma comes tides of the familiar phrase that claims pain to be weakness leaving the body. Only did we, or rather, do we, come to open our eyes to what a concussion is until the moment of a tragedy personally affects ourselves or those who we consider to be close to us.
“Unfortunately, I’m still learning about concussions to this day,” Yatsko said, “and I can honestly say that I never really understood what a concussion was, or what it can do to someone, until I suffered my concussion back in 2005. It was the concussion that ended my athletic career.”
The atmosphere of the high school locker room—no matter what the sport or gender of the sport may be—is infected by notions of pride in playing injured and never giving in to pain. It is an admirable ideology, but it can take down an athlete physically. It can hold serious risk to the health of an athlete who is, for example, considering playing through a concussion, and such a situation is even worsened when the athlete, or coaching staff for that matter, is unaware of the implications of such an injury. I asked Yatsko about her life as a teenager, mostly interested in how athletics had affected her persona in high school.
“My life as a teenager was almost perfect,” she explained. “I was a starter on my high school varsity basketball team since my freshman year, I won a PIAA state medal in the long jump during my sophomore year [in track and field], and I was on the high honor list for my academics in school. I had many friends and I was set to achieve my goals for a scholarship, and nothing was going to stop me.”
And yet something did, unfortunately, stop her. January 10, 2005 will forever remain a date in history that Yatsko will never forget. It marked the beginning of the downward spiral she would find herself in that significantly impacted her life.
“It was just another ordinary high school varsity basketball game. Right before halftime, I was jumping up for an offensive rebound and as I was coming to the floor, the back of my head hit my opponent’s head. Immediately, my eyes blacked out and I experienced what I like to say was an outer body experience. I was aware that I was still playing basketball, but the feelings of my body changed, and my head was spinning and confused.”
It is amazing that no one noticed this, or cared to stop the game. In fact, it was up to Yatsko to continue playing. Again, the culture of sports prevails in a situation that we are all too familiar with. She continued:
“I wasn’t really concerned while I was on the court playing because my focus was basketball, but once I sat down at halftime, the pain hit me, and I believe that was when I realized I may have suffered a concussion. I didn’t want to tell my trainer [for I feared] that he would sit me out of my next game.
Two days later, we played another game, and I was in no shape to play. But as an athlete, we feel that we need to suck it up and get in the game. I knew I had a concussion, but I played anyway because my team needed me. Unfortunately, after the game, I collapsed in the locker room, and my life of migraines, chronic pain, and depression had just begun.”
Knowing Yatsko, it was hard for me to envision such an action in the locker room that was once decorated with her own athletic legacy. It had become a site for her downfall, and the following days, months, and years only reminded her of what happened to her that final day. I recall sitting in my chair beside the podium at that press conference the two of us spoke at in June, and seeing tears run down the faces of both her mother and my father. Tears that are products of the story that follows.
“My symptoms were severe. I often describe the pain as if someone was smashing my brain with a hammer [constantly],” Yatsko said as she described the post-concussion life that she began to live. “I never had a day of relief in the beginning—not even an hour. The lights inside my house had to be turned off and the outside light had to be blocked by dark sheets covering the windows. I always needed help wherever I walked because my balance was not stable—if I tried to walk by myself, I would end up walking into the walls or falling to the floor. The pain always made me so sick to my stomach, and after a while, my whole body would be so weak. I could no longer support myself standing still.”
The most common result following a concussion is what is known to be post-concussion syndrome. It is essentially an extension of the regular effects of a concussion, and can often become debilitating to he or she that has been injured. After my second diagnosed concussion, I had spells of headaches, dizziness, confusion, sensitivity to light, and memory issues for six consecutive weeks. Yatsko, according to her explanation, rather had her “life ripped right out of” her “hands, with no warning, at seventeen-years old.”
“I could no longer attend high school, could no longer hang out with my friends, and could no longer be the athlete I wanted to be,” said Yatsko, further elaborating on the extent of her post-concussive symptoms.
“How did I cope? Not very well at all. Sports was my passion and what I thought was my whole life, and when that was taken away from me—with pain put in it’s place—life was not easy. Depression set in, and I honestly did not think I could handle life anymore. My life consisted of waking up to extreme pain, screaming and crying all day, and just hoping that night would come so I could fall asleep because that was the only time I was numb. There came a point when life became so hard that I didn’t believe it could get any better, and I almost hoped that when I fell asleep I would just stay asleep—forever.”
But such a mentality was combated by strong support by her family, who was there for her at all hours of every troubling moment she experienced. Yatsko explained to me how important her family was in getting through the most troubling times of her injury. Not only was her family involved, but her teachers were there for her too.
“My parents and immediate family were very supportive. Without their help, guidance, and faith in me to push through, I honestly can say that I know I would not be here today. I also had many teachers that supported me and helped through my studies, because they understood what I was going through, and they were willing to give me as much time as I needed to take care of my health, which I really appreciated.”
When it comes to her peers, however, the situation was quite different. This is where I connected tremendously with Yatsko as she told me her story, for I too endured ridiculous criticism regarding the ‘truth’ behind my injury. This is an area in which the sports environment really needs to address—one that must take action in changing the culture of sports to not demoralize the integrity of an athlete because they have suffered a brain injury.
“As for my peers,” said Yatsko, “it’s honestly still hard to talk about. Many of the students in my high school really enjoyed talking bad about me and saying that my concussion was fake.”
Still today, this kind of thing frustrates me. It is embarrassing to sometimes say that I once affiliated myself with the game of football. For Yatsko, however, her situation called for even further escalated feelings of sadness.
“There were so many times when I haven’t seen the outside of my house for weeks at a time, and when my mother finally took me out to get fresh air, and someone from my school had seen us, they decided to tell everyone that I was out and about, and that there was no way that I could be sick if I was outside, and that all I wanted was attention. A brain injury is invisible to the eye. I looked healthy, but on the inside I was in terrible pain, and when you hear that people are saying that you are faking it—it was truly the worst thing I had to deal with as a teenager, minus the brain injury itself.”
Yatsko’s future would take an even more significant tumble when she attempted to integrate herself within the ‘real world.’ And by this, I mean attending college, and having a job. These things that we all take for granted sometimes collapsed before Yatsko’s eyes. Feelings of hopelessness would even further penetrate her thoughts.
“After high school, I attended Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The demanding lifestyle of college was too much for me, and I became very sick. I had to leave Moravian only half-way through the first semester, and it was not an easy task to deal with.”
Regarding her attempts at working:
“I have tried to maintain a job at a few different places over the past six years when my migraines were under control, but just as things were going good and I was thinking that life was [getting better], a migraine would take me out. I had to leave many jobs [because of my condition].”
To anyone who is reading this story and having any doubts about this woman’s experience with post-concussion syndrome, brace yourself for the following excerpts of the conversation I had with Yatsko. There is no doubt that she deserves the respect of those who may criticize the concussion issue in sports—meaning that they dispute the evidence that has been brought to the foreground. She has been through way too much at an age that most of us consider to be our glory days. Please continue reading.
“In six years, I have been on over one-hundred different medications, and did not find relief with any. I’ve been on steroids, anti-depressants, and even narcotics, and yet nothing even touched my migraines. I have gotten DHE and steroid treatments through Lehigh Valley Hospital, which was a difficult experience. It was a three-day outpatient treatment, and it was about four to six hours of medication being run through an IV in your arm. I may have had relief once out of about five attempts. Otherwise, it made me extremely drowsy and gave me horrible rebound migraines. I have tried acupressure which was a nice relief, but it could only do so much.”
No, that’s not all.
“After being accepted into Jefferson [Hospital in Philadelphia],” she continued, “they admitted me twice into the hospital for eight days each, and ran all types of medications in high doses to try and knock my migraine cycles, but never worked. I have tried Botox—which is ‘proven’ to help take migraines away for up to three months—and it honestly was the worst thing I ever did. After about having forty shots in your head, it tends to become a bit painful, and that was the easy part. It was always as if my brain knew that there was medication trying to fight off my migraine, and in rebuttal it attacked, which led to even more severe migraines.”
Thankfully, the story gets better. There is hope.
“Finally, after I was about to give up, we found a lady who studies oriental medicine and acupuncture. For the past two months I have been on natural herbs and am decreasing my medication. I haven’t had a migraine attack since January, and it’s almost April. Although I can’t say that my migraines are gone for good, I am blessed to have found [some relief].”
Knowing that Yatsko has found some hope in her recovery, after years battling the repercussions of a concussion that altered the course of her life, pleased me. The two of us talk every now and then, and recently I have been happy to see that she has been seeing at least some light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t think anyone, other than her own family, understands exactly what sort of pain this young woman went through—pain that no one at her age should ever have to endure, especially as it being a result of a lack of education on concussions, as well as the culture of sports that has erected a wall of ignorance regarding the injury itself. This wall is what Yatsko wants to take down through her efforts of speaking to others about her story.
“I can only say that speaking and helping raise awareness [on concussions in sports] has brought a purpose to my life. People always told me years ago, when I was at my worst, that everything happens for a reason. Now, when you’re sick and depressed, that’s the last thing you need to hear, because I never understood how something so bad could happen to me. But now I know—concussions need a voice. [No one] should have to suffer like I have if it can be prevented.
A concussion is serious and should not be taken lightly. All you need is time to heal, and nothing is more important than your life. No scoreboard, no win, and no championship is more important than taking years off of your life. If you suffer a concussion, you need to see a doctor and get cleared before you return to play.”
Yatsko ended the interview by explaining to me what her goals were, and I must say that they are admirable words from someone who has been through so much. They are words that everyone must pay attention to, for they could come to be crucial at any point in our involvement in our own, or others’ athletic lives.
“When you see someone get hit in the head in a sports game, and is about to get back in the game, make your voice heard—you could be saving that person’s life.”