Marlee Smith struggled for years after suffering a traumatic brain injury during cheerleading practice on October 10, 2016. Now she advocates for others. (Photo courtesy of Marlee Smith)
PHOENIX – It was just like any other day in October at cheer practice for Marlee Smith and her classmates at Denver South High School.
Then Smith’s day took an unexpected turn that would change her life and give her purpose for the future.
Smith fell during practice, hitting the side and back of her head on the ground. The impact was so violent that it took 21 days before Smith regained her memory. She still doesn’t remember what happened that day in 2016.
Like many other athletes, professional and amateur, Smith suffered a head injury. Over the past decade, sports trauma has spread from the halls of Congress to the back rooms of high school coaches to medical boards at top hospitals. Sometimes the topic of concussions – their causes and treatments – takes precedence over the games themselves.
When Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a head injury against the Buffalo Bills recently, the outcry caused a new NFL concussion protocol that will probably trickle down to the youth level.
But few people realize how common concussions are among cheerleaders. The sport is responsible for the third most catastrophic injuries (14.3%) among female high school athletes, according to data from the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, behind soccer and track.
A day after suffering a severe concussion while laughing, 16-year-old Marlee Smith struggled to stand up straight. (Photo courtesy of Marlee Smith)
That number has recently improved due to additional restrictions and improved training. Cheerleading was responsible for 65% of catastrophic direct injuries to female high school athletes during a 27-year period, according to a 2012 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Smith was already familiar with head injuries. She had suffered nine strokes, often called mild traumatic brain injuries, before that fall.
Smith knew the injury was much greater this time.
“I don’t know exactly what happened,” said Smith, 22. “From what you can see from the way my injury was, I hit the side of my head, so I had head trauma to my vestibular system. And then I fell back and hit my head on the floor.
“My mom told me at least I got up and practiced. So I have no idea if I gave the head another hit during that night. My coaches didn’t check me for a concussion at all.”
That was the end of cheerleading for the 16-year-old and a life-changing moment. The first week after the fall, Smith was withdrawn from school and began treatment for a traumatic brain injury.
Rather than treating her as if she had suffered a typical sports-related concussion, her doctors began to treat her as they would a survivor of a serious car collision.
It was the beginning of an unpredictable journey, but it was the one that led to that purpose – supporting those with brain injuries and educating others on the possible effects.
Early stages of recovery
Smith didn’t stop practicing that day, and it wasn’t until she got home that her mom realized something was really wrong with her. This may interest you : Alice and the sad face: A Richmond Heights entertainer in search of school spirit.
“When she came home and said she had crashed, and she’s like, ‘I don’t feel good. I hit my head.’ So I packed her up and took her in (to the hospital),” said Susie Hagie, Smith’s mother. “And usually when there’s been something like that, she’s like, ‘No, no, I’m fine.’ And this time, she was just really polite and said, ‘Sure. , whatever you want to do, mom,’ that is. not Marlee.”
Once Smith entered the concussion protocol, it was clear that her head injury was more serious and that she was not improving with rest alone. Hagie’s fear began to grow as she watched her daughter suffer.
Smith could not stand up without nearly falling over, could not form sentences and had trouble remembering day to day.
“It was very horrible. I was really scared about how intense it was,” Hagie recalled. “At first, it was, ‘Oh my goodness, is she going to be a functioning adult? Or do I have a really bad handicap now?'”
Although these questions came over her mother, Smith was still unaware of what was happening because her brain was swelling.
To help reduce the swelling, Smith was prescribed Propranolol for a short time. The drug is usually used to treat migraines but in some cases it is used in traumatic brain injuries.
Robert Klingman, a physical therapist and clinical director for Movement for Life in Oro Valley, often sees patients like Smith struggling with multiple, prolonged concussion symptoms.
“Usually eighty percent of people who have concussion-related symptoms will resolve within two weeks, so the people we see in the office are usually the ones who don’t get better in that first two weeks,” said Klingman.
Smith’s dizziness, memory and balance issues are typical symptoms he and his clinic see when treating patients. Dizziness is often an indicator of a long recovery, Klingman said. He and his clinic assess patients’ symptoms and place them on an individualized trajectory to help improve their symptoms.
“Not everyone has exactly all the symptoms I described,” he said. “Some people will have a dominant migraine type presentation, where light and noise will affect their symptoms. Other patients will have more vestibular type concussion, which is more related to dizziness, problems related to balance. Others will have more cervicogenic symptoms, which means it’s coming more from the neck almost like a whiplash mechanism.”
Klingman said, “We definitely work on these domains or pathways of focus so that we have an area and a system because typically with each of those pathways, there’s going to be a specific treatment that’s focused on that.”
Marlee Smith is a successful photographer and runs social media accounts. Some days, she has to take a long break to nurse a migraine. (Photo courtesy of Marlee Smith)
Smith’s trajectory included six to nine months of twice-weekly cranial sacral and chiropractic therapy. Smith still sees a chiropractor once a week to adjust her neck in an effort to avoid migraines.
When school was a challenge for Smith, teachers and administrators struggled to understand why she suddenly needed special accommodations. Simple tasks such as reading aloud were difficult. She had to relearn basic therapy skills.
“There I was doing everything from relearning coordination and balance to working on puzzles and rebuilding neural pathways,” Smith said. “It was difficult to speak. I was very affected by the impact and how brain damaged I was.”
With Smith struggling with such basic skills, Hagie had to push the school for the support needed for Smith to succeed again.
“With an invisible injury, she looked fine,” Hagie said. “Teachers would ask her, ‘What’s wrong with you’? And I’ve had a lot of people step in and say ‘No, let me tell you what you’re going to do. Let me tell you what you are not going to do. You are not going to treat her like this. Here is this documentation. Here is this paperwork. This is what you are going to do.”
While dealing with a lack of understanding from teachers, Smith also struggled with her peers. Her friends wondered when Smith would return to the squad.
She knew that would never happen.
“I don’t think you realize I’m not coming back,” Smith said. “You don’t need to come back from this. This is not how that works. At that point, I want 17-year-old to give my whole soul to cheer one more year. But it wasn’t going to happen. It was not meant to be in my life.”
With the help of her mom, Smith found arrangements to finish high school. Smith’s course load included only required core classes.
It was always Smith’s goal to go to college and get a degree in journalism. After her brain injury, Smith found a new love behind the camera, capturing images. So she decided she wanted to do a degree in sports journalism and become a photographer.
To get into college, Smith had to take the SAT test. One of the many difficulties Smith struggled with was recall, which is essential in most academic examinations.
To her, and her family’s, surprise, Smith was able to complete the exam and registered the fifth highest score in his high school class.
Smith and her family decided that she would attend Arizona State University, the school closest to home that would give her opportunities to achieve her goals in photography.
At the end of her initial concussion recovery, Smith walked out with post-concussion syndrome. According to the Mayo Clinic, post-concussion syndrome occurs when concussion symptoms last beyond expected recovery. To see also : Cheerleaders on Gameday: Falcons vs. Packers 2016. The typical recovery period is vague and can vary from weeks to months.
Smith continues to experience some symptoms now, more than six years after the accident. Persistent migraines cause the right eye to go numb and affect vision. It affects her day to day, including her ability to take photos. Smith communicates with her co-workers and is always ready for a migraine to strike.
Marlee Smith’s recovery was long. Her symptoms included dizziness, memory loss and balance issues. (Photo courtesy of Marlee Smith)
“There are parts of my brain that will never develop the way they’re supposed to,” Smith said. “And I still have things like chronic migraines. I still have neurological symptoms if I get a certain level of stress or if I’m under too much pressure.”
Completing her degree was an uphill battle for Smith. She struggled to get professors to understand her needs and had difficulty meeting the language requirements for her degree.
With the parts of her brain that understand language being activated, understanding a new language was a difficult task for Smith.
“I took Spanish 14 hours,” Smith said. “It was so frustrating because not everyone, especially in my case was part of the injury I had with language and the language processing center of your brain; college was so frustrating because it feels like a failure.”
But Smith persevered and completed her language requirement to graduate in sports journalism in May of May 22. She now works for AT&T, running social media accounts and serves as social director for Miss Rodeo Arizona. One of Smith’s many passions is covering rodeo events as a photographer.
Despite these achievements, Smith still faces difficulties in everyday work life. Some days, she has to take long breaks to nurse a migraine.
Smith’s biggest advocates
Since the onset of her injury, Hagie has advocated for Smith and helped her find this new normal. On the same subject : I tried on my old cheerleading uniform 10 years later – people say I still have it…. Now living on her own, away from her mom, Smith leans on her boyfriend, Robbie Malles, to step in and help in the moments when she can’t advocate for herself.
A little over a year ago, Smith met Malles, a former professional bull rider, at an event she was covering. Shortly after meeting Smith, Malles learned of Smith’s traumatic brain injury. It now helps Smith identify the triggers for her migraines and helps her get rid of those situations.
“The biggest thing I could do for her is to make sure her health is much more important than a concert or watching fireworks or anything like that,” Malles said. “Her health and well-being will always trump everything else.”
As a former bull rider, Malles is no stranger to concussions. He retired from the sport in July and now recognizes the symptoms of the concussions he received while competing. When Malles was 10, his dad also suffered a traumatic brain injury, giving Malles a unique understanding of what Smith is going through.
And Smith also understands Malles’ struggle.
“I’m slipping, I’m starting to get worse, it seems like some days, I can’t put basic sentences together,” Malles said. “Some days, I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night. In the sense that I support her on a regular basis, because she’s been through three of them, she also supports me on a daily basis.”
Malles and Smith recently lost a friend, who was a bull rider, to suicide and after his death, he was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. According to the Mayo Clinic, CTE is a term used to describe degeneration of the brain and is likely caused by repeated head trauma. It is a condition that has led to major changes in rules and new protocols for head injuries in football and other sports.
Malles’ perspective on his sport changed and he made an easy decision to hang up his chaps and bull rope for good.
“It definitely helps to support the decision to retire and to be done with it,” Malles said. “Because I’ve already been through enough with what I’ve been through. I didn’t want to make it worse because head injuries change you. It changes your actions and things you can do. Not necessarily what you want.
“Do you want to go on a roller coaster? Of course. Are you sensitive to fast movements? Yes, so you can’t. Despicable it.”
With Hagie and now Malles, Smith surrounds herself with people who understand what she needs and are willing to fight to protect her health when she can’t do it herself.
Hope for change
Smith’s experience opened her eyes to the lack of awareness surrounding concussions and traumatic brain injury in sports and inspired her to advocate for awareness.
The topic is in the national spotlight again after Tagovailoa’s two concussions, which forced a change in NFL protocol.
Despite the changes in protocol, NFL players suffer concussions weekly. In week seven, four players were ruled out for concussions. With more concussions occurring now than ever before, Smith sees a need to support the ‘invisible injury’.
“One of the things that I feel is really important to talk about that doesn’t get talked about enough is something called the ‘invisible injury,'” Smith said. “When you break your arm, people can see you’re in a cast. People can see that something happened, and you don’t see a concussion.”
Smith tells her story through her social media platforms and teamed up with the Brain Injury Alliance of America to create an impactful campaign to share her experience.
6 years stronger and using my experience to make a difference. #MoreThanMyBrainInjury | @biaamerica pic.twitter.com/pivKfXEfup
— Marlee Smith Magic (@MSmithMagic) October 10, 2022
Hagie and Malles stand by Smith’s efforts to make concussions and head injuries “visible.”
“She turned a lot of those really negative things into positive parts of her life,” Hagie said. “And I love that she’s a fierce advocate for TBIs.”
Malles agreed and added that education is a big part of the effort.
“Concussions are something we don’t talk about a lot,” he said. “You can’t see what someone is really dealing with in their brain, after going through multiple injuries or even one significant injury. I think it’s something we just need to normalize the conversation and advocate for someone to take more time to heal their brain.”
Smith hopes for change and for others to recognize that one size does not fit all when it comes to head injuries.
“You might not be able to see it, but I’m struggling inside,” she said. “But the person sitting next to me, who also has a concussion, is struggling in a very different way than me.
“There are so many parts of your brain that do so many different things, damage to those parts really changes what your healing process looks like, what your rehabilitation process looks like, how you need things to do differently in your daily life. .”
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What helps heal a concussion faster?
How can I speed up concussion recovery?
- Reduce screen time. …
- Limit exposure to bright lights and loud noises. …
- Avoid unnecessary movement of your head and neck. …
- Stay hydrated. …
- The rest. …
- Eat more protein. …
- Eat foods rich in omega-3s. …
- Eat foods with lots of antioxidants.
Are hot showers good for concussions? Stress can make symptoms worse. Help yourself relax by relaxing in a quiet place and imagining a peaceful scene. Relax your muscles by soaking in a warm bath or taking a hot shower. Take over-the-counter acetaminophen to relieve headache pain.
Can a concussion go away in 3 days? While most people with a mild TBI or concussion feel better within a few weeks, some will have symptoms for months or longer. Talk to your health care provider if the symptoms: Do not go outside, or. Get worse after returning to your regular activities.
How fast can a concussion heal? Normal recovery is considered to be 30 days for those younger than 18, and 14 days for those older than 18. The goal of recovery management is to avoid a long recovery, but 10-30% of those with a concussion can experienced a long recovery.