TUCSON, Ariz. — The opposing team was on offense, driving hard down the field while kicking up pellets of rubber on their way toward the goal. I knew how this worked; I had done this many times before in every game since I was a kid. The last thing I remember is tracking the black and white patterned ball followed by a combination of silence and darkness.
When I woke up, I didn’t know that as of that moment, my brain had already started processing information slower and the coming months would leave me in a state of helplessness over constant and debilitating headaches. All I knew is that I needed to get up and keep playing.
I experienced my first concussion during my senior year at the U.S. Air Force Academy. When the injury occurred, all I remember was feeling myself fade back into consciousness, and then trying to shake it off and not let on that something felt very wrong. After days of nausea, dizziness, painful headaches and disorientation, I finally went to the base clinic and waited for the diagnosis I had dreaded. Sure enough, the doctor came back and told me that I had suffered a concussion. He said that if I had any additional head trauma, no matter how minor, it would put me at a heightened risk for brain damage. He also explained that if I exhibited symptoms after three months, my case would be considered severe. I had deadlines for fitness tests, papers and projects quickly approaching, and I didn’t have time to recover from a severe injury. After the fourth month of my recovery came and went, I still felt like a stranger in my own head and was overcome with headaches after reading just a couple pages for class. That’s when I really began to panic. I was getting more and more behind and was approaching the school’s limit of classes I could miss before failing them.
Everything that reinforced my identity was falling apart. I was not allowed to do the things I enjoyed like reading, watching movies, listening to music or working out because they made my headaches worse and slowed down the healing process. Graduating on time was in jeopardy, and my Air Force career looked like it might come to a close before it ever really began. I had many recommendations to try to get a medical turn back, but it would not be guaranteed that I would be re-admitted. Taking any time off was always a last resort for me because my class year, 2015, symbolized not just when I would graduate, but the people who I would graduate with. If I failed out of the Academy and didn’t fully recover, I didn’t know what else there would be left for me to do.
With plenty of time to sit and think in a dark room, as required by my doctor, I learned to define myself outside of the parameters that I held on to for so long. I had to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be outside of my accomplishments and abilities. More importantly, I had to learn what it meant to be mentally strong when my own head was working against me.
Last week I attended a resiliency course offered at the Kennedy Professional Development Center, where we were asked to define ourselves without saying anything about our jobs, race, or accomplishments. I thought back to my time recovering from my concussion and what I learned about myself not too many months ago. I wrote, “I believe in pursuing my faith and doing my best every day, regardless of result or measure of success.” Throughout the duration of my injury, I figured out what was most important to me. It was doing my best even if it meant only making it through five pages of reading or walking for 10 minutes, redefining that my “best” was reflective of my circumstances. I couldn’t control my conditions, but I could control that I was proud of myself for trying my hardest despite those conditions.
Thankfully, I recovered enough to avoid taking a semester off. I was encouraged through the invaluable support of family, friends, and mentors to endure the protracted recovery and everything that stood between me and my commissioning ceremony. I graduated from the Academy on May 28, and it was the proudest moment of my life. Having a severe concussion was an experience that tested my character and my values, but if it had not happened, I may not have learned that I still have an identity that will outlive my achievements and titles. If I can pass on anything to those that I lead now, and in the future, I hope it can be that lesson.