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Concussion deep dive: 'I'd be sitting in my room and I'd just start crying. I'd be like, 'What is wrong with me?'

Clare captain Laurie Ryan and former Galway star Cormac Bane share their scary experiences with concussion.

collage (1) We speak to Cormac Bane and Laurie Ryan for this in-depth read.

JUST AFTER MY head smashed off the ground, it all began.

This hellish feeling of pain starting at the top of my body, filtering from my head into my neck and shoulders, and then in towards the top of my back.

I had gone up for a high ball during a Sunday morning club Gaelic football match, the same way I had done hundreds and thousands of times before, but it’s one of the last times I have done so.

It was almost as if I was soaring, and then my wings were clipped and like a limp bird, I fell backwards. From there, I haven’t felt 100% since.

That was 10 February 2019.

Ten months or so on, I’m still feeling the effects of that concussion every single day. Without fail. Headaches, pains in my face, a sore neck and upper back, feeling down, tired, emotional; the list goes on.

I’ve been to A&E, had scans, seen doctors, specialists, physios, osteopaths, tried and tested every form of medication and remedy you can name, but still, nothing truly works.

The pain and feelings are intermittent, completely random. I have good days and bad; some are a lot worse than others. As someone who now manages to play a bit of sport here and there, and can generally go about my everyday life, I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

But this isn’t about me.

As a journalist, you’re told to report stories, not become part of them. That’s the last you’ll hear of my experience.

***

“After eight weeks of symptoms that impacted my everyday life and prevented me from both sport and work.” Clare star Laurie Ryan wrote on Twitter in July, “I cannot stress how important it is to get the proper help and rehab. Do not rush yourself back.

Five months on from that tweet, she’s still not right.

A lengthy phone conversation begins with the day she hit her head, and in chronological order, with little to no questioning from this writer, Ryan shares her journey.

The impact

“Basically, we were playing the club league final at the start of May,” she begins.

“I was just running for a ball, coming across from centre-back towards the sideline and a girl from corner back was running out towards the ball too. Neither of us saw each other, so she just ran kind of into the side of my head.

“Straight away, I didn’t go unconscious or anything, but I felt a bit drowsy. I was like, ‘Oh God, what’s going on here?’ I got up and I was grand. They were like, ‘Are you able to play on?’ and I was like, ‘No.’

I’ve never said no before. But something within me knew to say no.

It looked like a fairly bad collision. So much so that her cousin was in the stand, and came down asking, ‘Are you alive?’ 

Immediately, Ryan didn’t feel great, but as she took her place on the sideline for the remainder of the second half, she began to perk up.

“Afterwards, there was a presentation and people were talking to me and they thought I was fine too, but I didn’t really remember talking to them a few days later,” she explains.

“I thought I was fine, I drove home. I was sure I was grand, it was only 20 minutes. I got home anyway and I remember I was talking to my nana, I told her I got a bit of a bang but I was fine.

I was working in Dublin at the time so my plan was to drive back to Dublin. I was texting my boyfriend and he was like, ‘You actually haven’t spelled one word right, please don’t drive to Dublin.’

“I was like, ‘Oh no, like, I’m fine.’ Even after he said, it he was like, ‘You’re still spelling things wrong.’ Then I was like, ‘Ah crap, maybe I’m not as fine as I thought.’”

The next morning, she got the train up to work, but her contribution there didn’t last too long. She left the office early: “I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t look at a computer, but I still wasn’t feeling horrendous. I was still dosy more than anything.”

As the week went on, things worsened. She took leave and headed back home to Clare. Much of it is a blur, but she has a few distinct memories.

On the Wednesday that week I got a headache walking up the stairs. I was like, ‘Jesus, this isn’t great now.’ I had been sleeping a lot and feeling just sad really. Things were happening and I just wasn’t with it.

A trip to the doctor followed, and the 25-year-old was sent on her way with a concussion diagnosis, and strict instructions to rest. She did just that, staying home from work and nursing herself back to full health.

tg4-2018-ladies-football-championship-launch Clare ladies football captain Laurie Ryan. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

But everything continued into the next week.

“I went to go for a walk or something and I got a headache again,” she recalls. “Any time I was talking to people, I got a headache. The symptoms had actually gotten worse a few days after the bang.

“I went back to my own doctor and was like, ‘I have a headache,’ ‘I have this’ and I’ve that’. He was like, ‘Oh, you’re concussed. I’d say rest or whatever.’

“I was like, ‘Okay, but I’m not getting better. How long do I have to rest for at this point?’ That was a week-and-a-half I had pushed on to.

I couldn’t really do much, I was getting headaches the whole time, I was in bed a lot, I couldn’t go training because I couldn’t actually watch the football, it was hurting my eyes. I couldn’t deal with too many people talking to me because my eyes couldn’t go between people.

“If I was at home and my mam and my nana were there, and the two of them were talking, I’d actually have to leave because my head would be spinning and my eyes would be going between them. I’d just get tired from trying to concentrate.”

This is not right

Another week of rest passed, and into week three. 

Her beloved Banner side were facing Tipperary in a Munster championship match that week, so Ryan went along to watch. She ended up on Maor Uisce duty, delighted to play any small part.

At half time she had to take a quiet moment to herself, because she couldn’t concentrate after watching the 30-minute period.

“My head was thumping,” she remembers. “I sat down for a few minutes and I felt okay, and was like, ‘Oh I’m going to try run up and down the sideline for a minute or two and see how I feel.’

I felt fine doing it, but I slept the whole way home in the car. I got home and had the worst headache I had ever had and slept for five hours.

That’s when it really hit her: “I was like, ‘Feck, this is not right.’ It was at that point that I was like, ‘I need to go to someone higher up for this.’”

An assessment with a specialist in Galway, Dr Enda Devitt, was her next port of call. An online test, one that’s used in the NFL in America, was first on the agenda, to test her reactions and memory.

Happy enough with her performance there, the next task was simply moving her eyes from side to side between Dr Devitt’s fingers. 

“Literally the easiest thing you could do when you’re not concussed,” Ryan notes, “but I had to sit down for five minutes and try gather myself after it, because I felt so awful.

“He was like, ‘You’re definitely concussed,’” she laughs.

The symptoms were awful, like. Obviously I had the headaches and the tiredness and all of that, but the anxiety that came with it as well was something that I thought was myself.

 ”It’s so taken for granted. Even myself beforehand, if I ever heard someone had a concussion, I’d be like, ‘Ah, they’re surely okay to train.’ Now I don’t even understand why a person would come near training if they’re concussed.”

laurie-ryan-with-noelle-early Facing Kildare's Noelle Early in the 2016 All-Ireland final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Dr Devitt recommended her to a vestibular physiotherapist — one which focuses on imbalance and dizziness — whom Ryan worked with for seven weeks.

“I remember I went into her, she got me to catch a ball and I couldn’t do it,” Ryan continues, almost still in disbelief. “I was just looking at her like, ‘How come I can’t process my thoughts to catch a ball? I play football.’

“I’d do an hour with her every week, and then she’d give me exercises to do with my eyes, my head movements and stuff. I found it so intense.

I got my nana to do the exercises when I went home and she was doing them not a bother. I was like, ‘Ah, how am I struggling?’ I just couldn’t make sense of how it was affecting me so much.

No end in sight

It’s only here that she remembers to mention her absence from work again. 

Everything she does is with screens, so she couldn’t physically work.

“I couldn’t look at a computer for more than five minutes without getting a headache,” she says. “I was off work for over three months, and that was trying to ease myself back into doing an hour here and there, but it was never-ending.

“Even when I did go back, it wasn’t full days either because I couldn’t do it. I was just coming home and going to bed. They were like, ‘You’re gone past the point of what you’re able for so you need to just stop sooner.’

It’s so hard when you’re used to being able to do everything to have to taper it back down to being able to do nothing.

That’s the reality of it, though. 

Most people who’ve been through it to this extent would surely agree that you’d rather snap your cruciate than sustain another concussion. 

“There’s no end date,” Ryan nods in agreement. “You just don’t know. 

“A walk was too much for me, like. The specialist told me to stop napping, which I found the hardest thing in the world. I was so tired all the time, so trying to stop that was huge.

Doing the physio was so hard as well. I used to come out of there crying every week because I found it so tough. I was like, ‘This isn’t normal.’

“I remember she told me I wasn’t able to play the Munster final. I was devastated, but there was no way I was able to play either. I couldn’t catch the ball and turn around and turn back around and catch it again, never mind play a match.”

Seven weeks after linking up with the physio, Ryan passed her sign-out test. 

Basically a fitness test, she spent 30 minutes on a bike, and did some running, jumping, and catching footballs for the remainder of the hour. Cleared from that department, she had to return to Dr Devitt to re-do the assessment. 

She was shocked by how much easier it was the second time around and the progress she made, and was happy to finally be on top of things after being signed off from that end too.

the-clare-team-huddle Ryan's Clare team. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I felt great like and thought I was back to normal,” she smiles momentarily. 

Well, not just.

“But I still got little headaches and I still was struggling with work.”

Yes, she was cleared, but the medical professionals didn’t have a pre-concussion baseline level for Ryan –  an assessment of her balance and brain function. Yes, she had made a remarkable improvement, but her baseline could have been higher beforehand, all things considered.

“I could have needed to be higher again to be considered back to normal, but they just couldn’t know it because they had no baseline. Like, I came in at my worst. One of my tests was 43 when I was in the first time and it went up to 80 something. That was a brilliant improvement.

“I could do all the exercises moving my eyes without getting headaches. Again though, it mightn’t have been my normal. He was like, ‘This could have been a little deficit.’”

She did her best to return to her usual everyday life, and just get on with things. 

“I was back working and back playing but I still wasn’t feeling myself,” Ryan concedes. “That was all summer.

Up until probably last month, I was feeling so down and so horrible all the time. Basically, I had to ring the WGPA helpline because I was like, ‘What is wrong with me, I’m crying all the time, I’m down all the time, I’m getting mad with people.’ They were like, ‘It’s probably your concussion.’

“That’s six months later, and I’m still like, ‘Is this ever going to end?’”

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What is normal? 

Anyone who has experienced a serious concussion like Ryan’s isn’t exactly sure what normal is. It’s quite like the baseline testing, it’s hard to remember what one felt like pre-concussion. 

For her, the long-lasting symptoms — the headaches, the sadness, the feeling down — were quite intermittent. There are no clear triggers, the attacks are random.

“You just don’t know,” she frowns. “I could be normal in the morning but I just have to keep going until I’m not feeling normal.

“It’s very random now. I could go two weeks perfect and one day I’ll just get a headache. I’m like, ‘Is that a concussion headache now, or isn’t it?’ It might be nothing to do with it, but I never got headaches before so I’m always questioning myself nearly.

When I start crying for no reason — I never would have cried before. My mother would have said I was nearly a heart of stone, like. I would just be sitting in my room crying. I remember going to my boyfriend one day being like, ‘What is wrong with me? I just can’t stop crying.’

“I do personal life coaching through the Jim Madden [Programme] and I was telling him [her mentor] all about this. He was like, ‘You’re not alone but people just don’t know about it. They need someone to come out and speak about it.’

“So many people are getting concussed and they don’t even know. There’s just no awareness. Even my Clare manager has a heart of gold but he was like, ‘You might be okay next week…’. I’m like, ‘I can’t even look at training.’”

 

paul-griffin-sean-oconnell-and-mark-bailey-watch-james-oconnell The GAA and ABI Ireland launched a concussion awareness campaign in 2011. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

The concussion headaches, she says, have settled, but she’s still suffering with her mental health. 

And paranoia of going through it all again.

“It’s just more the feeling down and feeling sad and all of that. That’s still there,” Ryan concedes. “And any time I’m going playing, it’s always in the back of my mind: ‘Oh, I hope I don’t get another bang.’

“If I get the slightest knock… I got a knock on my stomach the other day, it was really hard and I was like, ‘Oh God, I hope I didn’t get a concussion from that.’ I’m so aware now that any knock can give you a concussion.

“I’m probably too paranoid about it now but I’m always like, ‘Oh crap, feck, I hope I’m okay now.’ 

She’s keen to share every detail of her experience, and before she gets into discussing her strong beliefs that people aren’t educated enough, and that concussion isn’t taken seriously enough, Ryan tells a few more stories.

How terrifying it all is is put to her.

She wholeheartedly agrees, so much so, that she shares her real fear.

It kind of makes you question is it worth it as well. I was like, ‘Why am I playing football when it could affect my life like this again?’

Another huge issue she encountered was when claiming back medical expenses. She’s mindful not to complain and she’s thankful that it got mostly sorted, but early on, it was very tough.

That was a big problem for her, and something simple that is often overlooked.

“I couldn’t even go on a computer to print off a form,” Ryan explains. “My nana doesn’t know how to work the computer, so I was left not being able to make a claim because I couldn’t do it. 

Eventually I managed to get it in so I could claim physio expenses, but I was out of pocket early on. You end up forking it out, like. But I’d literally keep paying and paying until I’m normal again.

‘Ah, you can’t be that bad…’

Another story springs to mind. 

“My uncle was getting married and I was living with him up in Dublin so I was very close to him. But I was in bed the night of the wedding and the night after by 10 o’clock, like.

And I felt good. That was two months after the concussion. I was like, ‘Oh I’m doing better, I’m getting there.’ But when I think back on it, to be in bed at 10 o’clock when all my family and everything were having fun, I’m like, ‘This is crazy.’

The big question, so: are people educated enough about concussion? 

munster-v-connacht-ladies-football-interprovincial-round-3 Ryan made it back for the inter-pros in November Source: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Are head injuries taken seriously enough?

Ryan immediately answers, without a single doubt in her mind.

No. I 100% don’t think people are educated enough on it. I definitely know that it’s not taken seriously enough.

“People don’t get it. People ask what’s wrong, I say I’m concussed and they’re like, ‘Ah, sure you can’t be that bad, like. It’s been how long?’ I’m like, ‘Nah, I can’t have a conversation at home with more than two people.’

The bottom line 

“It affected my everyday life, and when that started to happen, I was like, ‘This is so serious.’ I had been off work for more than three months. In fairness my work were so good and so understanding.

“The first day I went in they were like, ‘What are you doing here? You’re concussed.’ I was like, ‘Ahhh, I should be okay.’ Next thing I was out for three months. ‘This is awful’.

They knew more than the football, d’you get me? They were like, ‘This is not good, you shouldn’t be here.’ Whereas the football were like, ‘Ah you’ll be back soon. You’ll be okay.’ Even the girls were never like, ‘Oh, are you okay?’ because they just presumed I’d be grand because it was only a little knock.

“My cousin thought I was going to be brought away in an ambulance the way I looked when I stood up after the bang. That’s how she described it. She was like, ‘It wasn’t good for my health, you knocked five years off my life.’ I didn’t think it was that bad, but you just don’t know until you’re in it.”

She’s committed to helping others and spreading the word now.

“The lack of people knowing as well,” she concludes. “Meeting other people and they’re like, ‘Oh I got a bang on my head the other day,’ and I’m like, ‘What are you doing still playing?’

“If I hear anyone gets a bang at training now, I’m like, ‘Are you sure you’re okay now? Have you got checked?’

I just wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through the three months I went through. They need to be taken seriously.

That’s the bottom line. 

Lack of understanding

The same big questions are put to recently-retired Galway and Caherlistrane footballer Cormac Bane at the end of our conversation. 

In June, Bane was forced to retire after two ‘serious and prolonged’ concussion injuries over the past two years. 

Bane explains that he did an in-depth interview about the symptoms and knock-on effects after he retired this summer, and the response to that really opened his eyes.

cormac-bane We also hear from Cormac Bane. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“There was a huge reaction to that from players’ parents and even the media around the country,” the former Tribe star says. “People knew that I had retired as a result of concussion, but not many knew what concussion was or what the symptoms were.

I think there is clearly a lack of understanding on the subject of concussion, especially at club level in the GAA. That would be my opinion anyway.

At the time of our conversation in early December, Bane was preparing for a retirement function thrown by his club, Caherlistrane. Obviously a nice occasion, but it’s sad to think that the 35-year-old did not get to bring the curtain down on his glittering career on his own terms.

Most will remember the 2008 Connacht champion with Galway for the brilliant 2-1 he scored against Mayo in ’07, but Bane will go down as a true legend at his club.

After making his club debut at the age of 15, he went on to wear the jersey with distinction for 20 years, remarkably missing just one club championship game in that time. 

“That was as a result of that first concussion injury,” he adds. “I nearly had the 100% record! But that’s what caused the missed game.”

That happened in February 2018, playing rugby for his local club, Corrib RFC. A heavy knock to the face in the second half, but Bane didn’t think much of it. 

“It was a late tackle,” he recalls, “and I suppose I felt a bit groggy and shaken after it but I played on.

That was on a Sunday and for the next three days I had symptoms of dizziness, seeing stars, and I had headaches. As the week progressed, the symptoms worsened. On top of that then, I was feeling sick, a bit confused and had pressure in my head.

“On the Thursday of that week I went to my doctor and from there then, I went to hospital. I spent a week in hospital and was out of sport for six months.”

In time, he felt fine to return, though.

“I suppose it was difficult enough to get the medical advice that you needed,” Bane recalls.

“When you’re playing inter-county football — I was lucky enough that I did it for years — you do have those experts there at training sessions and games to advise you on what to do and what not to do. When you’re playing club it is difficult to get access to these doctors.

“But after six months, the symptoms started to settle. I went and spoke with Professor Ted Lynch [Consultant Neurologist] in the Mater Hospital. He said that along with the concussion, I had a vestibular disorder.

“There were exercises for that type of injury and I was able to return to play soon after that consultation. I felt fine, felt strong, and was back playing games by the end of last year.”

michael-shields-and-cormac-bane Facing Cork in 2011. Source: James Crombie

A career ended

But the career-ending second blow came in May 2019, lining out in club championship with his beloved Caherlistrane.

“I got a knock to the face in the first minute of that game, and was forced off with a facial injury,” Bane recalls. “This injury ended up being a second concussion injury.

I was back in hospital two days later after suffering the recurrence of all the original symptoms, and I announced my retirement then two weeks after that.

Medical advice dictated that he retire from the game — and from contact sport in general — with immediate effect.

It was obviously hugely disappointing, but for Bane, it wasn’t exactly a choice.

“No, there was no decision to be made really,” he concedes. “Two serious concussion injuries over a 15-month period, hospital treatment for both injuries. That was decision made really.

After the first concussion, I knew deep down if I received a second one, then that would probably be it for me in terms of playing. I didn’t really need a doctor or a specialist to tell me to stop but they did anyway.

It’s not worth thinking about a potential third blow, he adds: “I suppose the reasons for this were because the first injury was so prolonged and serious.

“The fact that all of the same symptoms returned after the second knock, there was the risk if I received a third one then it would result in a longer recovery time or even cause some permanent damage.”

Luckily, he’s feeling more and more like the old Cormac Bane, and pretty much back to himself, now. 

Or normal, as Laurie Ryan put it over and over.

“Thankfully, most of my symptoms have settled now,” Bane concludes.

It’s just over six months since I sustained the second injury. I still have a bit to go with a couple of things but I’ve made a lot of progress and I’m feeling much better.

“These things just take time.”

***

You can read another lengthy piece about concussion with Roscommon’s Conor Shanagher here: 

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