By Claire Lapat
My name is Claire Lapat. I’m 18, and I’ve had 17 concussions.
I was a soccer player for 13 years. I was in love with soccer. I put it before anything in my life, including my health. Unfortunately, the athlete mentality of playing through pain is what ended my career. I never let myself fully recover from any of my concussions and now my life is completely different.
I got my first concussion when I was ten years old, but the concussion that scared me the most was my fifth concussion when I was in eighth grade. I remember sitting in school the day before, writing an essay on John Brown and Harper's Ferry, and the next thing I remember is sitting against a brick wall in the gym the next day. My teammates had to tell me what happened. It was December, so we were practicing indoors, and I was going in for a tackle but I got tripped up with another girl and fell and hit my head against the wall. I was knocked unconscious and hit my head again on the floor. I was only out briefly, but when I came to I was crying. I was hallucinating mice and started vomiting uncontrollably. I went to the doctor two days later. He said I probably had a small brain bleed, and that I definitely had a concussion. I missed three months of school. I could never have imagined how much a concussion could impact my daily life and how long the symptoms would plague me.
I spent all my time at home laying in a dark room during my recovery. At school, I spent most of my time in the nurse’s office sipping ginger ale and eating saltines. I couldn’t think. Math that used to be easy for me became impossible. I couldn’t exercise at all for eight months. When I was finally able to get my heart rate up again, I would go blind in my left eye. Ten months after my fifth concussion, I lied to my doctor and went back to soccer.
My sophomore year of high school I was playing for the varsity team. I played through concussion after concussion, but my tenth concussion cost me my soccer career. I’d gotten a concussion in practice the day before, but I was able to hide it. The next day, I was body checked from the back. I never saw it coming. My head was flung forward and I hit the ground: hard. I couldn’t see anything. That didn’t stop me from playing, though. Later in that game I was going for a loose ball in the box and went to volley it but instead kicked the goalie in the head because of how bad my vision was. I never reported my injury and continued to play. Finally, after ignoring my concussion symptoms during the winter and part of my spring season, I went to the doctor because my head hurt so badly. I had an abnormal neurological exam and the doctor ordered an MRI. The scan showed some scarring. I was told I would never play soccer, or any contact sport, again.
Unfortunately, my concussion history doesn’t end there. I went to overnight camp that summer. It was August 2015. During color war at camp I was playing an intense game of team handball. I don't remember what happened, but I woke up on the ground. My friend was holding me on my side and yelling my name. I sat up and was so angry for no reason. I couldn’t organize my thoughts. My head was killing me and I was extremely nauseous. A few minutes later I started to vomit. I ignored these symptoms, played them off as dehydration, and I continued with my activities. A few days later I went home and went to the doctor. We decided that I should do half days of school, but when this was too much to handle we decided I should take the year off to focus on my health. Instead of preparing for junior year and the SAT, I was going to 10 doctor's appointments a week. I was laying in a dark room in debilitating pain. I was depressed. I felt so alone and many of my friends could not understand why I stopped going to school. I ended up losing many friendships.
My symptoms are still very severe. I can’t focus on anything for more than a few minutes. My short-term memory is shot. I’ve become impulsive and sometimes say things without thinking through the consequences. I’ve had to leave class to vomit in school many times. I always have a headache, and it spikes throughout the day. I get dizzy often, my balance isn’t good and I still go blind in my left eye when my heart rate goes up. I’m fatigued all the time, I have severe insomnia, and I also have tremors. I have anxiety and depression which at one point got so bad I wanted to kill myself. I got to a point where I’d take too many pain pills to see how far I could push it.
What gave me hope was being an assistant coach for my former club coach and his U-10 team. I helped them improve their soccer skills and got to know them as people. That was an extremely rewarding experience. I started to feel normal again. I had human contact. I was helping people. I found a sense of purpose that I had lost. I was able to pass along my knowledge of soccer and life to younger girls. I even recognized a concussion in one of the girls and I was in charge of explaining why she couldn't go back into the game to her dad. I was also accepted at a new school and started back for my junior year September of 2016. Things were looking up, but I’ve had to accept that my life will never be the same.
Concussions changed the trajectory of my life, and for some time I let the concussions win by thinking I had lost my identity. I now realize that my concussions helped me figure out who I wanted to be in the future. Next year I will be a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh and will study neuroscience so I can go to medical school and hopefully one day specialize in pediatric TBI and concussions.
People ask me if I regret playing through my concussions. Depending on the day, you might get a different answer. Most days my answer is no. I realize that sounds strange given what I have and will deal with. But soccer was everything to me. I could not have lived with myself if I didn’t get everything out of soccer that I could. However, as more time passes, I’m starting to see that it wasn’t worth it. I’d never expect a teammate to play through a concussion, and I’d always let my coach know if I thought a teammate had one. I expect that from anyone. I encourage everyone who is reading this to speak up if you think you or someone you know has a concussion. And when you suspect you might have a concussion, always choose to come out of the game. I risked my life by staying in. I took unnecessary risks and there is much more to life than soccer. I encourage everyone to #TeamUpSpeakUp to try to prevent concussions from derailing more lives.