Nikki Brammeier on her road to recovery: Concussion is a real injury

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It was unseasonably warm in Pont-Château, France, when a small but highly competitive field of racers lined up for the UEC European Cyclocross Championships on October 30. The condition were dry, the course non-technical and fast. World Champion Thalita de Jong would power ahead and cross the finish solo ahead of compatriot Lucinda Brand and Frenchwoman Caroline Mani.

But for Brits Helen Wyman and Nikki Brammeier (née Harris) the race lasted less than a minute. A crash in the fast opening sprint of the race saw the two riders hit the deck hard, ending their race and perhaps even their seasons.

Wyman (Kona), a two-time European cyclocross champion, suffered a series of serious injuries, which led to her undergoing surgery on both of knees, her shoulder and collarbone as well as some repair work on her chin.

“I’m the proud owner of some new metalwork to make airport travel just that little bit more fun in future,” she wrote in an update on her blog.

Brammeier (Boels-Dolmans) meanwhile sustained some nasty facial injuries as well as a serious concussion. Today, after 10 days of no screens, Brammeier was able to provide an update.

In her own word, here’s Brammeier’s account of the crash and the journey to recovery as she’s dealing with post-crash concussion.

– Anne-Marije Rook

I remember the start, the first few hundred meters. I remember seeing a gap open up on the inside of the corner and a chance to move forward a couple of places. Next thing I was screaming on the floor, my helmet in bits hanging down over the side of my face. I was looking for someone, anyone, to help. I’d somehow face planted gravel at 50kph. This stuff doesn’t happen very often, especially not in cross.

The next thing I remember is [my husband, Matt,] standing over me. My European Championship attempt didn’t last very long. My face was pouring with blood, so were my knees and my arms. I knew where I was but everything was a little blurry and foggy. I knew my race was over and my body was a bit of a mess, but never did I know what I was going to be in for.

I’m sitting here now typing this, 10 days after my crash. It’s the first time I’m able to look at a screen without my head feeling like it’s about to explode.

I’ve had lots of crashes before, it’s part of the job. Broken bones, damage to muscles, cuts and bruises. You learn to deal with it. It’s nothing new. I’ve hit my head hard noticeably only once before when I slipped on ice at the Diegem cross a few years ago. I hit a lamp post and was briefly knocked out but I didn’t treat it with any seriousness. I felt ‘OK’ and was up and out on the bike the next day, racing only days later and carrying on with the job.

I met with a neurologist a few days ago, he asked me how that concussion left me feeling, did I have any symptoms… I had a scan over my training diary and it hit me straight in the face. “Feeling tired” “Not feeling myself again” “Sleeping bad” etc, etc – all the hallmarks were there, I just didn’t realise it and I was never made aware.

Last Sunday, myself and Helen (Wyman) spent the afternoon together in Accident & Emergency. It wasn’t quite a social affair, more a night of pain, foggy memory and pretty much a nightmare. I had my face and lip sewn back together and had scans and X-rays on my head. “All clear” they said, and I was on my way back home.

Nothing was broken but I was a mess. My face was starting to swell and the pain soon started to get worse and the agony had only just begun. I was so happy Matt was with me. He watched over me all night, we didn’t really sleep much as I was in pain all night.

My head started to get a little concerning. It was the most intense headache I’ve ever experienced, the only way to describe it, is that it was like a hard metal headband tightening around my head and not releasing. I started to vomit, and I couldn’t really walk without help because my balance was totally off. All I could think is, it will get better.

The next day we travelled back to Belgium, 8 hours in the car, that wasn’t much fun. I was drifting in and out of sleep the whole journey. My pain was getting worse, my eye had now totally closed over and the other I could barely see out of. As it started to turn dark, the lights on the cars came on and I just couldn’t deal with them. I couldn’t deal with anything. Noise, people, any sound. It was just all too much.

I headed to the hospital that night for some more tests. I wasn’t convinced everything was hunky dory, but once again there wasn’t too much concern at A&E. We decided to get back home to the US as soon as possible and get my head checked out properly.

Last week the symptoms continued, I didn’t leave the house and barely my bed the whole week. Some days I had to just sit in a dark room. I couldn’t stand any light. Or more than one person talking to me at a time. I was having panic attacks at night, I couldn’t react to conversation or even want to be involved with any kind of interaction because my head just couldn’t cope. My phone, the TV, any screens or lights were unbearable. It was all too much. The stitches in my mouth meant I couldn’t really speak and eating was difficult too. I was a complete mess. Everything I find happiness in was now out of my control.

So far the the healing is going well on the outside, my face has made great improvements, and I’m looking like myself again. My stitches are out on my face but I still have them inside my lip. The concussion symptoms are still ongoing, I’m improving now a little every day but I still have some headache, whiplash and dizzy moments most days.

These last 10 days have taught me a lot.

Patience is something I usually struggle with but I have no choice at the moment. Concussion is a real injury, just like any other injury we need to give our heads chance to recover, time to rest and a gradual re-introduction to normal life and in my case riding.

You wouldn’t break you leg and go running the next day so why do we injure our brains and start using them the next day? It’s something that’s of course in the spot light in other sports but unfortunately not so much in our sport. I’d love to be able to take something positive out of the couple of weeks and in some small way increase the awareness of concussions in cycling.

Please be kind to yourself when it comes to your head. Even a small crash could have long term effects, if you hit your head you should go and see your doctor whatever, it’s that simple.

I can’t sugar coat things. It’s been a terrible couple of weeks and it’s a terrible situation to be in at this time in the season, but on the other hand I’m lucky. It could have been so much worse.

I’m sure a few of you will be wondering when you’ll see me back with a number on my back. At the moment I have no idea. I’m taking one day at a time. I’m happy and confident I’ve done everything right this time around. I’ll get back to where I want to be and hopefully by the time I’m back we’ll have a bit of mud and some ‘real’ cyclocross races!

Nikki Brammeier is a professional cyclocross and road cyclist currently racing for the Boels-Dolmans team. She is the current British national cyclocross champion.

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