Sidelined Player Steps Up Game In Concussion Awareness Effort
A talented athlete, Kylee Bliss might have been a scholarship basketball player at a small college.
As a sophomore point guard at Blue Valley High School in Stilwell, Kan., she practiced hard and had a real feel for the game. That changed after she sustained two concussions on the court in the span of eight weeks nearly three years ago.
Since then, Bliss has been publicizing her symptoms, intent on informing other high school athletes of the seriousness of traumatic brain injuries.
That’s not where the story ends, however. Bliss still deals with the chronic headaches, dizziness and concentration lapses that are common after-effects of concussions.
Her depth perception is also askew. “I can’t tell you how many times I have run into doors because it looks a lot farther,” she says.
Now a freshman at the University of Kansas, Bliss, 18, is still involved in sports, but from the sidelines. Working part-time in the KU football office, she hopes to specialize in pediatric medicine one day.
She’s also taken another step to raise awareness about and spur research into post-concussion syndrome (PCS), forming the nonprofit HeadsUp Foundation for PCS.
Just three months after its establishment in August 2013, the foundation has raised about $12,000 through its HeadsUp 10K trail run and 5K walk/run at Shawnee Mission Park. The second event is scheduled to take place at 9 a.m. on Oct. 25th at Shelter No. 2 in Shawnee Mission Park.
Mike Sherry, a reporter for Heartland Health Monitor and the Hale Center for Journalism, recently met with Bliss to talk about her condition and the events that inform her efforts today. The text has been edited for length and clarity.
Please start by taking me through the events that led to your concussions.
My first concussion was my first night of basketball tryouts my sophomore year, so 2011, and it wasn’t a big enough deal to stop practice. I just collided with another girl … And so after practice in the locker room, I was just walking around. I had no clue who I was, where I was, when my birthday was, address, any of those things. And so the trainer, she called my Dad to come pick me up, and then I went to the doctor the next day, and it was confirmed I had a concussion. He said I should get brain rest — no talking on the phone, no texting, no watching TV. And that was Tuesday when I went to see him, and then Wednesday morning I went to school.
Was that the wrong or right thing to do?
No, that was wrong. But I begged my parents to let me go, and I told them that I was fine and that I didn’t really have a headache and all my other symptoms were gone. They weren’t, and I lasted, I think, a few hours, and then they sent me home.
What was happening? How come you only lasted a few hours?
My headache was really bad. I was dizzy. I asked my teacher to go fill up my water bottle, and I was gone for like 30 minutes, and nobody knew where I was. Eventually, they sent someone to come find me and I was sitting down, I was like, “I don’t know where I came from; I don’t know where I’m supposed to be.”
Not many people would be anxious to go back to school.
When I was diagnosed with a concussion, I had to be out until all my symptoms were completely gone, and then after that I had to have a week of working into playing. So I knew it was going to be at least a week, if my symptoms were completely gone, so I was trying to speed that process up as quickly as possible.
The trainer would not let me practice until I was cleared by a doctor, and I knew that the doctor who had seen me before still wouldn’t clear me, so I had my Mom take me to a different doctor — just my family doctor, and I lied to him. I was just like, “No, I don’t have any headaches.” And for him, it was not fair at all to him. I put everyone in a bad situation. I wanted to play, and I didn’t want to let my team down, and so I did that, and he cleared me, and then I just had to wait a week, and then I went back.
So when did the second concussion occur?
It was my third game back. Somewhere, I think around the fourth quarter, it was a really close game and my team hadn’t won a game yet, so that was another reason for me to get back. So I dove for a loose ball like I normally would, not thinking, “Oh my head still hurts I probably shouldn’t do that,” and I collided with a girl and then I hit my head on the floor. And then after that, I came out for a few minutes. I was like “please put me back in the game,” and so (the coach) did. I got fouled right after I went back in, and I went to shoot the free throw to put us ahead. I got up there and I couldn’t see the basket. I was just disoriented and I shot. I got close; I didn’t make it. That was the last time I ever played basketball.
What happened after the second concussion?
I went to speech therapy, vestibular therapy, and then I can’t even remember the other (therapists). There were a lot because the symptoms were still so bad every day. The first (concussion) happened right around winter break. So over that time, I wasn’t able to concentrate; I wasn’t able to remember. But once I went back, I took my finals. I failed every single one. On one, I got about a 12 percent because I just could not focus; I could not remember any of it. So that was kind of like when everyone said, “OK, there is something really wrong here” because I have always gotten straight A’s. OK there was like one B, but we don’t like to talk about that.
How long did it take before you started feeling decent again after the second one?
They started me on all these different types of medicines. Some of it helped, some of it didn’t. So until I really started to feel better a little bit, it would’ve been more than a month, probably three, because I had to do the therapies and do all that stuff. It was more just learning how to manage the symptoms as opposed to them getting better because they are still all here.
You specifically wanted to make the 10K more difficult during the fundraiser. Why is that?
Running on a paved surface, for most people, is a challenge. But to run on a mountain bike trail is just an added challenge. It takes more concentration and more effort. It is just kind of symbolic of how things that I used to be able to do very easily now just take extra time, and more work and more effort.
How are you working through the rigors of college classes?
I use pretty much all the time that I am not sleeping to study or work on other things. When I read, I have to take notes over every chapter, which takes longer. But if I don’t, I can read something and I can read it 400 times and not tell you a word of what it says.
Mornings are really hard just because my head, when I wake up, always hurts in the morning. So pushing yourself to get out of bed is rough. It hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be; being able to go to a class for 50 minutes and go home and take a nap and then study and go back to class has been a lot easier than going to school for seven or eight hours a day.
I just have to find my places where I can go study, like the Natural History Museum (on the University of Kansas campus). People don’t go there during the day, so it’s very quiet. I have to find things that work for me — and just knowing Thursday nights, it’s going to be loud, Saturday nights, it’s going to be loud. So I just have to do other things to counteract what everybody else does.
Do you think your symptoms will ever go away?
No, just because of the fact that I have lived with them every day for practically three years. But at the same time, that is O.K. I have learned how to deal with them. You know, there are people who go through a lot worse. Obviously, I hope they will go away.
How do you feel about having established a foundation by the age of 18?
I am pretty proud of it, but more than anything, I just want to be able to hopefully prevent other people from going through the same things. All my friends go out and have a good time, and go to football games and go to basketball games and go to concerts and stuff. I can’t do those things without feeling bad for a week after. So I’ve had to grow up a lot quicker and I’ve had to make those choices that, “Hey, I’m not going to go this concert because I have to do what is best for my health.”