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Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby updates reporters about his concussion during a news conference at Consol Energy Center on Sept. 7, 2011. (JASON COHN/REUTERS)
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby updates reporters about his concussion during a news conference at Consol Energy Center on Sept. 7, 2011. (JASON COHN/REUTERS)


Voyages in Concussion Land: the homeless, Sidney Crosby and me Add to ...

Nearly two months ago, I was on a return visit to the emergency room, to deal with a concussion I had sustained during a bike accident. A doctor studied my MRI results for a while and then he talked to me, as another doctor and a nurse had already done, about Sidney Crosby.

Everyone in Concussion Land talks about Sidney Crosby. I heard one brain-injury patient who had been in a car accident several years earlier say, “Thank God for Sidney Crosby. Before Sidney, people just stared at me blankly when I told them about my injury. Sidney put this thing on the map.”

Several people in the waiting room at the clinic nodded. One woman added quietly, “Do you find you’re more emotional now than before your concussion – that you cr …” And before she could finish saying “cry,” all four patients in the room burst into tears. Which I found hilarious, but I was crying too.

The doctor on that particular night in emergency talked to me so much about Sidney Crosby, and in such a roundabout way, that I finally said, “Just give it to me straight, doc. Are you trying to tell me I’ll never play professional hockey again?”

He looked meaningfully over at the nurse and then made a note on my chart. I was bombing. Not that I cared, because one of the most striking and common symptoms of a concussion is feeling oneself permeated by what should be an alarming sense of detachment but is only a sense of detachment.

I had planned to go on holiday just before my accident. I have instead wandered – somewhat crookedly, as my balance is poor (like Sidney’s, I’m told!) – around my city, as if I hardly know it, sometimes to stirring effect. It’s another kind of holiday to see your town that way: I’ve felt as if it’s unknown to me and as if I’m about to leave it soon.

I’ve thought often of a study conducted in 2008 at the Centre for Research on Inner City Health at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, where I’ve been lucky enough receive much of my treatment. The study concluded that 53 per cent of the 904 men and women it examined who were in homeless shelters had sustained a traumatic brain injury, compared with an 8.5 per cent lifetime prevalence rate among the general population (according to U.S. figures).

Significantly, 70 per cent of those people had suffered their injury before they became homeless. A head injury can bring a loss of income and cognitive difficulties that cause issues with impulse control, all of which could lead a person to end up on the street. I’ve also wondered if the dissociation many concussion sufferers experience, including me, might contribute.

Possibly one loses an inappreciable factor, the part of oneself that fights to stay put, when an accident renders all things equally unfamiliar. I’ve looked up at a line of buildings and seen them as if there were the final scenes in a sad, vividly shot film.

Yet, in these past few weeks, I find, as I was told by a former boxer I would, that I have longer and longer periods of feeling normal and at home again.

I’m still tired, worn out by lightweight social contact. I have a friend and fellow writer, Eric Rutherford, who suffered a concussion around the same time as I did. As Eric put it, “Small talk, chat, even more than debate, is exhausting.”

Sound and light remain a problem, but the endless headache and pain in both eyes have lessened. There is neurological damage behind my left eye (the side I went down on, the bike helmet spit in two inside – so please, everyone, bike helmets). My left pupil is still, and may remain, huge. I lost more than 10 pounds, so pretty much half my body is covered by my left pupil now.

As well – and scientists had thought this impossible – since the accident, my spelling is worse.

But I’m coming around again, no question. When I arrived home, very early in the morning, after that last night in emergency, I had one of the most vivid dreams of my life. I was standing, wearing a simple dress, in the Antarctic, and around me were five or six beautiful and enormous penguins. It was very calm and one penguin in particular was looking down at me.

When I awoke, I lay there thinking about it, and realized that Sidney Crosby plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins, a fact I didn’t consciously know, as I don’t follow hockey. My unconscious is a lot sportier than I am, I guess.

I felt as if Sidney had come to tell me I’d be okay, and he was right. Thanks, Sidney.

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Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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