Battling a brain injury: From fighting to win races, to fighting for normal life
The issue of concussion among cyclists was brought into sharp focus at the Tour of California this week when Cannondale-Drapac rider Toms Skujins crashed horribly on a technical mountain descent. The footage of the Latvian struggling to stand up was hard to watch, and the fact he got back on his bike was more than concerning. Hopefully Skujins will make a swift recovery. Others haven’t been so lucky.
Last week, Ella CyclingTips co-editor Simone Giuliani wrote about her long road to recovery after being concussed in a seemingly innocuous MTB crash. In the following article, a former cyclocross pro tells the story of his battle back to health after a traumatic brain injury, also sustained in a seemingly minor incident.
My name is Ben Frederick. l rode bikes for Ritchey at the pro level in cyclocross from the fall of 2015 through the fall of 2016. I crashed heavily two weeks before the 2016 ‘cross season kicked off and have been recovering from a traumatic brain injury since. My hope is to tell you a little bit about my experience to help raise awareness of the (potential) effects of concussion.
It was 6:15am when my alarm buzzed for a five-and-a-half-hour ride with trails. It was hot, really hot — 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35ºC) and humid. I wanted to get the bulk of the hard work done before the heat hit. Ate (lots), on the bike by 7am. Woof, the legs were tired. The trails should fix that. Another hour ripping turns, going fast, getting rad on the cross bike. Flow. Another hour. A break. Eat. Drink. Easy spin to the next trail. The dirt was kind of sandy and wet … tyre stops, head smacks the ground and digs in. No bounce, no slide. Like hitting a wall.
That’s the moment things changed. A transitional trail, not getting rad, nowhere near my limit technically or physically. It changed my life.
I didn’t lose consciousness and even rode 30 more minutes, attempting to finish my workout. I went home, took a nap, shook it off, “no problem”. But I felt worse and worse. A short car ride a few days later sent me into a fog so deep that I went to the hospital. The following four weeks became the same awful day on repeat. Stuck in a dark room. No screens. The effort of moving around the house to make food causing bad headaches, nausea, dizziness.
Far from home and far from normal
The seven months since then have been a slow battle back to normal. Not the normal of an elite athlete, but the normal of being a human being. The normal of completing simple tasks like driving. Sitting in a coffee shop. Listening to music. Reading a book. Holding a conversation in a room with other people talking. The list of things I took for granted and still struggle with goes on.
Despite the trouble of existing, I held on to the hope that I could race. It was what I knew. What I loved. What I spent years of effort to do. Any attempt at a bike ride outside and or on the trainer reduced me to tears, and two days spent in bed. The writing was on the wall, and it was confirmed by the doctors at the Cantu Concussion Clinic in Boston a month after the accident; no riding or exercising for another four weeks, with no firm end date predicted. I was told to avoid any sort of stimulation: physical, mental, emotional.
“Well, doc,” I said, “My career just ground to a halt, I have no way to make money now, my girlfriend dumped me while I was stuck in a concussion fog in a dark room, and I’m 500 miles from home. I’ll do my best not to think about any of that.”
Back home, back to the dark room, back to isolation. “Okay, maybe I could ride at Nationals (still three months away), yeah, that could happen. Nationals. Then Europe. I can do this”, I told myself, laying in bed with my head pounding and the floor spinning from making lunch.
A month passed and I hadn’t shown much improvement. I was told to take another month off. There was no way I could race. Months and years of hard work, focussed on this one season, was now slipping through my fingers. The support of amazing sponsors, investing in the potential for success, left unfulfilled. I had to let go of the season, let go of the pressure, and focus on just recovering to “normal”.
Turns out, it takes much much longer to heal brain tissue than any other tissues. You can’t use crutches on your brain; you can’t take the weight off until it heals enough to start walking on it. When it’s trying to heal itself, the resources aren’t there to help with processing noise, light, or other stimuli.
I was told that every concussion is a snowflake: They may look similar, but each one is completely unique. I had a special snowflake of fluid built up in my head. Not enough for surgery, but enough to cause any sort of elevated heart rate in the first four months (even 100bpm) to be hugely painful. Headaches that felt like my head in a vice. If I tried to do anything more than sit still, a sea of dizziness, nausea, and overwhelming anxiety were driven through the roof.
Now, with no means to earn a living, I was stuck. I couldn’t stay with family in Virginia – I needed the health care and insurance that was provided in Massachusetts. I couldn’t drive, and the community I sought in the new town I had just moved to left me isolated. I could barely navigate the world inside my head, let alone outside my room.
It was at this moment, when I felt most alone, that Christin and Colin Reuter and Maris and Cole Archambault reached out. None of them knew me but for a few short interactions in the cycling community. They came over and sat with me in my darkened living room for short dinners and asked how they could help. They became a lynchpin in my recovery, helping fundraise, coordinating logistics, and introducing me to their friend group who have in turn become like family and an amazing support network. They’ve all helped guide me out of what was a very dark place. I will be forever grateful.
An injury with a recovery time of a week to forever
It’s been seven months since the crash. I’m no longer held back by a dark room and 100bpm. For a while, I could hike but would need to spend the rest of the day recovering, over-sensitive to every noise and light. I’m building on that now, and went on a run for the first time last week. I’m able to take photos and have been loving the creative process. Riding and driving are getting closer. My vestibular system still gets overwhelmed by stimuli at high speeds, but I’ve made it around the block now without having to stop.
My computer time is increasing, though combining screens with cognitive effort is a bear. (This essay, which would have taken an afternoon before the concussion, has taken a couple of weeks to get down). I still struggle with being around lots of people and in highly stimulating environments. Coffee shops, grocery stores, restaurants, and busy streets all become overwhelming quickly. It feels like a wall of noise and movement that takes a huge effort to exist in. It’s getting better though.
A friend told me a while back that a brain injury takes between a week and forever to recover from. That sounds about right. For some, it’s a week of headaches and feeling off, for some it’s a battle they continue to fight for years. Some people say they changed from who they were before the injury. Some people understand the trials of an unseen injury, some never will.
Moving forward is a daunting proposition. I got very good at riding a bike in circles. That goal, drive, magnetic north was my barometer for all of my decisions. With that gone, it opens the world up wide with possibilities. It’s scary as hell, but I am hopeful. My gratitude for new friends who have helped carry me through is high, and I have a new appreciation for anyone else who has struggled with unseen enemies.
To them I say: “It gets better, just hang on.”