Story by Michael Charlebois
Jeremy Gottzmann, former Carleton Ravens men’s hockey forward, said the darkest moments in his long history with head injuries were not in the immediate moments following his worst concussion.
“I remember the moment I got hit, my body was just in anxiety mode,” Gottzman said. “I had an anxiety attack, and skated off the ice . . . I remember [the trainer] came into the room and I was just trying to hold myself up. Then I just remember bawling as I fell to my knees.”
Although this traumatic experience was one that Gottzmann said he never wishes to relive, the months following this incident took him down a dark path of mental instability, severe anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.
All of these problems were seemingly caused by playing a sport he loved. For Gottzmann, and many athletes like him, it was a sport that put his well-being in a state of disarray.
The significance of concussions in sports and their effect on the brain has been well documented in recent years, as evidenced by media attention from sources such as TSN.
“When I was growing up I didn’t have any knowledge of concussions, or the long-term effects of them,” Gottzmann said. “I didn’t even really know what a concussion was.”
Former Carleton Ravens soccer player Andrew Latty said there is a general sentiment when it comes to concussions that crosses both sports and different levels of sport.
“There’s a stigma; people think you’re soft, or you’re hiding something if you come out of a game [with a concussion], but in reality you’re not,” he said.
Matthew Holahan, a neuroscience professor at Carleton University, conducts research associated with the brain and its functions. He said he believes that the nature of a brain injury certainly influences this attitude.
“Think about an athlete who breaks their leg,” Holahan said. “You can clearly see they can’t move that leg. Meanwhile, a concussion; players can make a self-diagnosis that conflicts with their competitive interests.”
Gottzmann said he recalled an instance during his time in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), where this attitude was displayed by his coach.
“If you got hit in the head, which I did a couple of times where I can remember seeing stars, the coach would come in and say: ‘Are you ready to go?’ And you have to say yes, because that’s the mentality you have to have.”
This mentality is something that has served to the detriment of many athletes at Carleton, according to Michael Calof, who played with Carleton’s men’s soccer team from 2011-2015 and was involved in a head-to-head collision during one quarterfinal match.
“It was one of those ones where you see stars and it goes dark for a bit,” Calof said. “After the game I knew something was wrong, but we won that game to advance to the final four, so there’s no way I was going to let that stand in the way.”
The results of Calof’s collision—later diagnosed as a concussion—were life-changing. He suffered from anxiety and attempted to break up with his girlfriend. He said his most serious incident occurred during a night out with his friends at a familiar bar.
“I did not know where I was,” Calof said. “That’s when I knew that something was seriously wrong.”
“A lot of the sensitive areas of the brain that undergo pathological changes are associated with memory for time, places, and events,” Holahan said.
The symptoms aren’t just limited to memory loss, though. In Gottzmann’s case, an anxiety disorder, which he affirms was a direct result of repeated head trauma, was compounded with attention loss and major personality change as a result of his most severe concussion.
“I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t walk to the store. I couldn’t talk to people because I would get agitated,” he said. “So it was just a long couple months of being isolated . . . My thought process was completely off. I was very impulsive, and I kind of lost touch with myself because I was so worried with my brain.”
Attention loss, concentration difficulties, depression, anxiety, aggression, and major personality changes are all potential results of concussions. In fact, repeated trauma to the head often results in changes to structures in the brain that parallel Alzheimer’s disease and early stages of dementia, according to Holahan.
Taryn Taylor, a sports medicine physician at Carleton, treats 15-20 concussions per week. She said the most difficult cases she has dealt with are those that fall in the same breadth as Calof’s and Gottzmann’s.
“To see a [young person] struggle with a medical condition for such a long period of time at such a crucial time in their life, is the hardest one for me to deal with,” she said.
Both Gottzmann and Calof cited the lack of education as one of the missteps that led to the worsening of their conditions. However, the reality that looms over the science behind concussion education is that it’s still in its infancy.
“To figure out basic physiological changes [in the brain] you need animal models,” Holahan said. “But animal models are only a vague representation of the human condition.”
Holahan affirms that some progress has been made through research in determining how the brain reacts. However, the next step is where scientists have essentially been at a standstill.
“There’s nothing we have right now that can prove a diagnosis,” Taylor said. “In almost any other injury we can take some sort of picture of it . . . There’s also no way to prove resolution, no way to prove markers of healing, so it’s purely based on systemic symptoms.”
“How do you treat that?” Holahan said. The answer is not as simple as prescribing a pill, and it isn’t out there for the time being. It’s this step which Holahan calls “the grey zone,” in which scientists are looking for answers.
For the time being, the solution may lie within educating the athlete, asking them to carefully monitor symptoms, and to seek treatment when necessary.
“You don’t have to keep it a secret, you don’t have to hide to try and play—that’s the message that has to be sent,” Calof said.
“Concussions are the only injury that affect almost every aspect of life,” Taylor said. “Their ability to play their sport, their ability to go to school, their personality, their mood, their social interactions, vision symptoms, etc.”
At the end of the day, Gottzmann said not everybody makes a career out of playing sports.
“We need our brains to live. If somebody is risking that because of some far-fetched dream . . . it’s not worth it,” he said.