Labriola On

Dale Jr. puts a face to concussion rehab

There is value in hearing from the professionals, from the experts in the field. What they bring is the most up-to-date information on the topic, and also the experience to put that into context. They are the ones who make their livelihood by doing what they're talking about, and they're doing it well enough to put food on their table and a roof over their heads.

But there also is something special about the people who have lived it. Maybe their perspective isn't scientific or academic or clinical, but it's personal. It's anecdotal. And likely it's more relatable, because it's based in real-life rather than coming off the pages of a book.

Today at Heinz Field, those in attendance for the second Concussion Symposium, which again was presented by UPMC and sponsored by the Pittsburgh Steelers, got a bit of both. There were 72 area high schools represented for a Symposium titled, "High School Sports and Concussions: Advancements in Treatment," and those coaches, athletic trainers, and athletic directors heard from an array of professionals in the field. And then Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the podium.

Earnhardt had traveled to Pittsburgh to take part in this Symposium, to speak candidly about his personal experiences with concussions resulting from his participation in a violent professional sport. He told his story, a real-life chronicle of a time in his life when he suffered the symptoms of concussions, completely committed himself to the treatment program outlined by Dr. Micky Collins and his staff at the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, and then came out on the other side.

"In 2012, I was in a crash," began Earnhardt. "I can say with confidence that I was never unconscious in a race car, and I wasn't that day either, but you don't have to be unconscious to have suffered a concussion."

Shortly after the incident, Earnhardt came across a member of his crew, and the guy knew immediately that he wasn't right. He told Earnhardt it looked like he was trying to stare right through him. Shortly after, during lunch at a barbeque joint, Earnhardt felt nauseous.

"At times, you might brag about it with your friends, a concussion as a badge of honor, something you worked through," said Earnhardt about his outlook at the time. "I didn't know I could get medical treatment for it. It was something I just assumed would heal, like a bruise. That's how I treated my concussion in 2012, I was going to race through it. I was going to go a few weeks and just try not to get into any trouble on the racetrack, it would go away, and then I'd put it behind me."

And his self-treatment program seemed to work. Four weeks later, at Talladega, Earnhardt said he was feeling 100 percent, and even though the three weeks of symptoms had lasted longer than anything he had ever experienced before, at Talladega, he felt clear as a bell. Excited.

But then on the last lap at Talladega, Earnhardt got t-boned, "and everything was back, only worse. I was very, very angry, couldn't control myself, couldn't control the way I was feeling, and it scared me into seeking medical treatment. That experience woke me up to how serious concussions are, something I had taken lightly in my career."

That was when Earnhardt became Collins' patient, and as he stood behind that podium at Heinz Field, he said, "He gave me my life back. Twice."

Following his treatment in 2012, Earnhardt went back to racing, and things were pretty much normal until he experienced another, more serious issue in 2016. There was one crash in Michigan that year, and then after he thought he was "feeling good, racing" came another in July at Daytona.

"Something didn't feel right," said Earnhardt about post-Daytona. "Couldn't put my finger on it, but I couldn't make decisions fast enough, I just knew I wasn't myself. It was such a small difference, but I couldn't put my finger on it because it came on me very slowly. Other concussions manifested themselves quickly, but this one came on like a cold, or the flu."

When he went to the next race, which was in Kentucky, his symptoms got worse. He started having issues being around crowds. He finished 13th in that race, and by the time he went to see his doctor the next Tuesday, "I could barely turn my head or turn a corner without falling over or leaning on a wall. Things were getting pretty bad."

And so it was back to Pittsburgh, back to South Water Street and the UPMC Concussion Center. "Any kind of movement would shake my eyes off any object I might be staring at," is how Earnhardt described his symptoms at that time. "Whenever I'd take a step, I would lose sight of whatever I was looking at."

During a two-hour drive with his fiancée to do some food-tasting for their upcoming wedding, Earnhardt couldn't drive, and he couldn't even look out the window during the trip "because everything outside the car was bouncing and shaking." And so for that entire trip, he just stared at the floorboards.

He related a story about going to the grocery store and how that simple act would bring out all of his symptoms. But part of the treatment was to work through the situations that brought out the symptoms, and then that was followed by a period of rest, and then do it again. Just like working a muscle in the body.

"As the treatment went on, the symptoms changed," said Earnhardt. "We fixed a lot of the left-to-right movement stuff, and then it became about the vertical movement of the head. I'd go back to see Dr. Collins and his team, and we'd get a whole new set of rules to live by, new homework, and new treatment to do. I even wore glasses for a time, because instead of being tethered together, my eyes seemed like they were working independently. I would get headaches when trying to read, and the glasses took away a lot of the headaches."

And in addition to the physical symptoms, Earnhardt opened up about the psychological issues he was facing at the same time.

"When I first got injured it scared me, and I didn't want anything to do with what injured me. Racing was bad, because it hurt me," said Earnhardt. "The injury was so severe that I almost wanted to make a decision never to do it again. But I knew as soon as I started feeling better and life got better, I would want to think about getting back in the car. Dr. Collins gave me the confidence that I could continue racing if I wanted to, so we set up an opportunity to get back in a racecar at Darlington, which is one of the toughest tracks. We ran some laps, spent the whole afternoon at the racetrack, and it fit like a glove. I felt great. Everything I felt in the car was familiar. If there was one environment that could stress my symptoms, it was inside a racecar, and so that was a great day."

There have been a lot of great days since, to hear Earnhardt talk about it. The day of his wedding, the day he was able to climb up into his deer stand to hunt, the subsequent days on the racetrack competing in the sport he loves, and today at Heinz Field when he was able to talk about what he experienced in the hope that it can help others going through the same thing.

"There are a lot of things I learned through this whole experience," said Earnhardt.

"You're going to meet other people who have experienced concussions, and it's great to lean on those people who can comfort you. I like to comfort other people who are going through the same experience, but what's most important for them is that they listen to their doctors only when getting advice. You have to believe in the treatment 100 percent as a patient, not 80 percent and then there's Plan B. There is no Plan B.

"We talk about the importance of people speaking out if they have issues. Dr. Collins is going to have a much more difficult time diagnosing me and then treating me if I'm not transparent, if I'm not honest and forthcoming about what I'm feeling and what's wrong with me. It certainly helps the doctor understand where to target.

"Lastly, my experience with UPMC gave me the confidence to compete again. Dr. Collins gave me my life back. Twice. He gave me the confidence that not only would I get back to my old self, but also the confidence to get back out on the racetrack and compete hard. Grind it out. And I also have the confidence that I'll have a great quality of life, beyond a racecar."

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