The Challenge: Fatigue and Confusion After a Hit in the Head
It was during a predawn April 2019 workout in Australia when Amelia's life suddenly changed. The 36-year-old accidentally hit her head with a 10-kilo (22-pound) medicine ball.
“My whole face shook," says Amelia.
She went on to work at her government job even though she felt strange.
“I kept telling my workmates my head really hurt," she says. “But it's the Australian way to just say, 'Get on with it. You'll be alright.'"
The next day, she had trouble talking on the phone and in meetings.
Three days after her accident, Amelia says she was a “mess."
The normally busy wife and mother juggled a full-time job and a side business running a women's fitness studio. But now, she could no longer function.
“I felt fatigued and confused. I couldn't have a simple conversation," she says. “I was there physically, but not mentally."
Amelia's Path to UPMC for Concussion Treatment
Over the next few months, Amelia's condition remained the same as she went from doctor to doctor seeking help.
She couldn't watch TV or read. And cooking in the kitchen was “a nightmare."
She recalls bursting into tears while making a smoothie.
Doctors initially told Amelia to:
- Get rest.
- Work out on a stationary bike in a dark room.
- Stop riding when her heart rate became elevated.
Hope finally came in a podcast with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., shared by her husband. Earnhardt talked about his concussion and the treatment he received at the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh.
“Everything he said, I was going through. He was in a car crash and I hit my head with a medicine ball. But we had the same symptoms," says Amelia. “I decided right then that I had to go to Pittsburgh."
Amelia still had to convince her family — and overcome her fear of flying.
“My father finally said, 'I believe you'," she says.
In October 2019 — six months after her accident — Amelia was on her way to America with her dad.
At UPMC, Amelia met with the team, including program director Michael “Micky" Collins, PhD.
“Within 10 minutes of seeing him, I knew I was going to be OK," she says. “I went back to my hotel room and cried. I was so relieved."
"The best part about being in Pittsburgh is no one blinks when you tell them about your weird symptoms. They've heard it a thousand times before. They make you feel that this is normal and you're going to get better." — Amelia
The Solution: Treatment for Two Types of Concussion
During her 10-day stay in Pittsburgh, Amelia met with four specialists, including Dr. Collins and Anne Mucha, PT, Vestibular Rehab Program Coordinator.
She learned she had two different types of concussion presentations— vestibular and anxiety — which share similar pathways in the brain.
“The best part about being in Pittsburgh is no one blinks when you tell them about your weird symptoms. They've heard it a thousand times before," says Amelia. “They make you feel that this is normal and you're going to get better."
Doctors prescribed her targeted physical therapy for both her balance and exertion problems, designed by the concussion rehab experts at UPMC.
The team also suggested an “exposure and recovery" strategy — the opposite of the approach she was following in Australia. Everything she had avoided was now on her “to do" list.
She returned home with a plan that included going back to work, reading, watching TV, shopping, and cooking.
“At first, going back into the kitchen was horrible. There's so much turning, twisting, and bending involved when you cook. The motion was killing me," says Amelia. “It sounds counterintuitive because you're willfully making yourself sick. But it works."
“They pushed me hard. They said you're going to hate it. You're going to be sick, but you're going to do it and you'll be OK," adds Amelia. “I never had doubts because I listened to Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and I trusted the team at UPMC."
The Results: Running Around at the Playground With Her Daughter
Throughout her recovery, Amelia received regular support from the UPMC concussion team via email and telemedicine. At their urging, she began taking anxiety medicine.
When her recovery plateaued, they encouraged her to add dance therapy. She started taking twice weekly Salsa and Latin dance classes.
Amelia began feeling better within 3 months of her return home, but it took a year to fully recover.
She describes the healing process as “slowly expanding my bandwidth."
She added other activities, including playing the piano, watercolor painting, and gardening — which she says turned out to be “profoundly therapeutic."
She's thrilled to be able to work, cook, clean — and most of all — run around with her 6-year-old daughter at the playground.
“It was worth every penny going to UPMC in Pittsburgh," says Amelia. “I got my life back and you can't put a value on that."