Monday, February 20, 2017

Post-Concussion: What a car accident taught me about my students

When I found out I had a concussion, I didn't think it would impact my life in the way it did.  Honestly, I felt fine--for about 12 hours.  Then the way I look and interact with everything in my life changed.  About a week in, I knew I wanted to remember and catalog this journey, but I wasn't able to.  I dictated thoughts into my phone, but it just wasn't what I was used to doing.  It's hard for me to listen to myself be so--vulnerable, and for this reason, this post will be the least edited I've put out to the world.  I am fortunate my injuries weren't worse, but I'm still healing.  And, as I've learned, healing is a process.  Especially for the impatient ones like me.

I share this for many reasons, but mostly for me.  I don't want to forget what I went through.  At the very least, I don't want to forget that I was able to better understand some of my students' struggles.

December 27th

I was leaving my sister's house, driving along the gravel road, when the loose gravel carried me into a tree lining the side of the road.  I wasn't going very fast, but in a matter of seconds, my car was totaled.  I wasn't looking at my phone, distracted.  Something had caught my attention and I looked in the rear view mirror for a moment too long.  Being of short stature (I'm 5'4"), I have to sit fairly close to the steering wheel.  My first collected moment was hearing my phone ringing.  Remembering I had set up 911 assist, I tried to end the call.  I was fine.  Sure, my car was not in good shape and in the middle of the road, but I was fine.  My nose hurt a bit from the force of the airbags punching me at full force and there was this burning sensation.  I guess airbags are basically fireworks inside your car.  That's probably not supposed to burn your skin.  I couldn't figure out how to end the call.  My car wouldn't let me.  I'm sitting in the middle of the road, sideways.  The last thing I remembered after the airbags going off was looking forward, yet seeing down the hill.  I closed my eyes and braced for the trip over the edge.  Now I was in the middle of the road.  Turned 90 degrees from where I'd been before.  I tried to call my sister.  She didn't answer.  Maybe I should run to her, then a car came along.  My shin hurts.  Stupid knee airbags...more like angle airbags for me.  I knew this would hurt tomorrow.  I get a good look at my car.  It's toast.  My ears are ringing.  I'm not sure how much time has passed.
The view from my sister's car while we wait for the tow truck.
Those are county deputy lights, not fire.  Sorry folks!

The EMTs clear me but tell me I should see my doctor anyway.  I passed all of the neurological tests they gave me.  I remember them saying my vitals were "something to be admired."  Maybe it's a teacher thing, calm during the storm and all.  I went home to sleep.  I just wanted the day to be over.

December 28th

The pain I expected, but the nausea started just before I called my doctor to schedule a visit.  A trip to urgent care it is!  My ears are still ringing, I'm not sure I should be alone, let alone drive.  A friend drives me to urgent care.  I'm told that I pass all the neurological tests again, but I still don't feel right.  The diagnosis is a concussion.  My students have had these, many on more than one occasion, but my airbags went off.  I wasn't driving very fast.  It just doesn't make sense to me.  I'm supposed to go home and rest.  At least I'm still on break.

December 29th

After being cooped up in the house for longer than I'm used to, I went out to eat.  It's hard to hear everyone's conversations and focus on the one I'm supposed to be having, but I really don't think much of it.  That is, until I'm at the counter, paying my bill.  I'm trying to add 27+5 and I can't do it.  I can't hold focus on the task at hand no matter how hard I try.  I hear every conversation, clear as day and muffled at the same time.  Dishes are clanging on the buffet line.  Sizzling at the hibachi station.  Children tapping their cups with forks.  People eating.  Lights buzzing.  I could hear everything and I couldn't block any of it out.  Determined, I focus on my hands.  "27" I point at one of my fingers "28", another "29", another "30", until I have 5 fingers up.  I may not teach math this year, but I'm a math teacher.  This isn't happening to me.  I sign the receipt and nearly burst into tears as I walk out of the restaurant.  My brain is broken and I'm locked inside.

This isn't right.  None of this is right.  I end up in the emergency room later that night because either my concussion made me so nauseous I threw up or the thought of me not being me was much more than I could handle.  I still don't know.

NOTE: I've been through simulation activities for ADHD and specific learning disabilities.  I wouldn't wish this restaurant experience on anyone, but if I could have others experience it I would.  Maybe they would understand what many of our students go through in our classrooms.

December 30th

Brain rest is boring. Nothing with a screen, no reading, no thinking.  Brain rest is boring.

Note: I didn't even write this part that day.  I didn't need to because it's really easy to remember that brain rest is boring.

December 31st

Tried to leave the house tonight for New Years.  I can't drink and I don't want to drive.  I'm exhausted.  I'm not sure why I left the house.  Leaving the house is overrated.

January 2nd

I went to the car dealership today. I sat there for an hour, waiting. I should have been home, but I just wanted to feel like I accomplished something. I need to make sub plans for my students tomorrow and maybe even Thursday.

I can't believe how exhausting it is to do the most basic things. I feel fine when I'm at home. Once I'm out, it's like I'm in a fog. I feel like everything I'm doing is for the first time. As if my muscle memory was wiped. I remember doing these things, just can't seem to do any of it right. The muscle relaxants make it easier to move, but I still feel that piercing pain when I turn my head at even half normal speed.

Yesterday, the remote fell off the couch and made a loud crack sound as it landed on the wooden floor. In that moment, I was back in my car. Scared and alone. Heart racing, frozen from fear. In that moment, I realized that I did lose consciousness. The phone ringing brought me back to focus, but I was miles away in the seconds before. How many times did the phone ring before I was aware?

I managed to have a conversation today when two people were talking at the same time without cringing in pain trying to focus. I have no clue what one of them said. I only managed to follow the other. Hopefully it wasn't anything important.

In so many ways this would be easier if I had a cast or something visibly broken. People could see the progress, see that I'm not quite there, but more importantly, others would know that I was injured. They would know that I didn't walk away from the accident free and clear. So they wouldn't tell me how thankful they are I wasn't hurt. I know they mean well, but I'm too tired to explain. More importantly, I would be able to see and gauge my own progress. As my cuts and bruises heal and fade, I know how long I'll be left with those marks. I have no way of knowing how long before I feel connected to the rest of my brain again. No way of knowing how long before I don't feel like a stranger in my own body.

What will my doctor say tomorrow, when I ask him if he can give me a cast? Will he understand? Will I feel more detached from the world I no longer understand?

January 6th

I missed the first 3 days of the semester. I have 75 students, most of whom have never met me, and I'm not there. I hate concussions. I hate head rests and trees and laws of physics. Brain rest is boring, but at least it's an excuse to block out the rest of the world for a little longer.

January 9th

I'm not ready to go back to work. I'm not ready to leave my house, but today seems just as good a day as any. If there's anything that has kept me from losing it during this time, it is my job. Even after missing the first week back, everyone welcomes me with open arms. Teachers who have given up part or all of their plan periods (in some cases multiple times) to sub for me aren't angry as I would have expected. They are happy to see me return. I don't know why I was so worried. I have the best workplace I could ask for.

I decided I would talk to my students about what is going on with me and my brain. It isn't easy and I hold back tears at times when telling them about what happened and how it will impact what we are going to be working on for at least the first part of the semester. Several students who have also suffered concussions nod in camaraderie. They get it. That's what got me through the first day. Then I left and went home to sleep for 12 hours.

This continued. Some days were better, some days weren't.

January 18th

Three weeks #postconcussion and still healing. In the last three weeks, I have learned that the side effects/symptoms of post-concussion are basically that of pregnancy plus a few fun extras (irritability, exhaustion, nausea, neck pain, tension headaches, ringing ears, hyper-sensitivity to certain sounds, lack of focus, and crappy memory/processing). I used to get migraines, I would take one instead in a heartbeat.

It is a daily struggle to be patient with myself when I'm not able to do what used to come so easily (or without exhausting me by 10am). I do a good enough job of acting like I'm ok and maybe that's a bad thing. Sometimes it's harder to keep it together. They say it just takes time. I kind of hate hearing about "time" right now.

February 3rd

I made it through an entire week without feeling like I was mentally held back. I have made it through post-concussion.

Then it happened...

February 15th
I presented two 3-hour pre-conference sessions at #METC17 and helped host the #tlap (Teach Like a Pirate Twitter chat) on Monday, then powered through Tuesday's sessions like a pro.  I met up with fellow Google Innovators and members of my Twitter PLN.  It was a great week.  Anyone who knows anything about me knows I live for these days.  METC is our "little ISTE of the Midwest" and my goal had been to be well enough for it.

#COL16 mini-reunion with Austin Houp
Getting ready to Teach Like a Pirate
with Dave Burgess

I was set to present one last session on Digital Differentiation and I was ready.  I kept joking that I wasn't because I have this thing about tweaking my materials and going perfectionistic on them, but I was ready.  I'd been ready for months.  Then at 2pm my brain decided it was done, but I didn't know it yet.  I walked into my session and began by telling them about my journey, this journey.  I didn't tell it for sympathy or pity.  I told them because it is at the heart of why differentiation and accommodations are good for everyone, not just students who have been identified with learning needs.  It's why we should be familiar with them, because students won't always know about the tools that could assist them.  I tripped over some of my words, but I was off to a great start.

Then my computer glitched.

I'm the person people come to when there is a tech issue.  That is who I have been for years.  I know how to troubleshoot through most problems, so when I clicked a link in a Google Doc and nothing happened, I am more than qualified to handle that.  If not just because having passed the Google Certified Trainer test means I know how to figure this out.  But I couldn't.  My ability to problem-solve was gone.  I was instantly overwhelmed by the lights in the room, the temperature, the number of people in the room, the sound of them shifting in their seats.  In my classroom, I would have been able to have my students work on something while I sat down and collected my thoughts.  Here, in a room with 40+ teachers, I had to be on my game.  My reputation as a speaker, presenter, trainer, teacher, conference committee member...that depends on me being able to collect my thoughts, focus, sound like I know what I'm talking about and generally, finish what I start.  When every part of me wanted to say "here's the link, go have fun," I stepped away from my computer and tried to share some stories from my classroom.  Some from previous years, and some from now.  It was the worst session I've ever led.  It's embarrassing.  Even days later, I fixate on it because I know I can do better, I know I am capable of better.  But in that moment I wasn't.  All I want to do is go back in time and make those 50 minutes better, but I can't.  All I can hope is those in attendance learned something that made my session worth attending for them.

So what's this post really about?

So many things.  Here are a couple of them:
1. When I met with my new primary care physician before I went back to work, he told me that he is seeing kids take about twice as long to recover from concussions since schools are going 1:1 and cell phones are more prevalent.  Looking at a screen is basically your job description when you teach technology and I fully understand the risk and setback I cause myself by subjecting my brain to endless hours of lesson planning, personal learning, and tinkering with new technology.  Our students don't always have a choice.  I often have not even known when a student has come back to school following a concussion.  It's my personal goal to do better and lay out some recommendations for students who have suffered brain trauma when returning to the classroom.  If just one good thing could come from my experience, it will be that.

2. I share this because I'm not the only person you know who has an invisible injury. You can't see all wounds and everyone is different. Some are better at hiding the pain. Some may know what tools are available to help them on a daily basis, others may not. Teachers often provide a support system without ever realizing it.

2016 was a rough year for a lot of people in many ways. It has been blamed for taking a lot of people from us. I refuse to let it take me too.