Brad Barker, 18, a catcher on a town team in Norwalk, Conn., was at baseball practice taking part in rundown drills when he took a throw from the outfield. As he dropped to one knee to block home plate, the runner slammed into him. “I instantly felt my brain shake inside my skull,” says Brad.
The collision left him with neck tension from the whiplash and blurred vision. But a local concussion specialist said he’d be fine after a couple weeks of physical therapy, including neck massages.
A few weeks later while vacationing with his family, a tree branch accidentally smacked him in the face. “It was dark, and I couldn’t see well because of my concussion,” says Brad. “When the branch hit me, it made everything so much worse.”
"Without Dr. Collins and UPMC, I don't know where I'd be right now. I got my life back and more." — Brad
After the second concussion, Brad experienced serious migraines, dizziness, and worsening vision problems — blurred and double vision and trouble tracking objects. He developed anxiety and the tension in his neck got worse.
“Everything I did made my head and eyes hurt,” says Brad. “I felt dizzy, like I was on a boat. If I looked at my phone, I’d see two phones.”
When he returned home, the specialist told him to continue with regular activities, but to stop when his discomfort got to a six on a scale of one to 10. He started tracking his symptoms, which triggered even more anxiety.
“I began to obsess and overanalyze,” says Brad. “I was in a foggy, detached state and having massive anxiety and mood swings. It was like a broken faucet that I couldn’t switch off.”
Brad withdrew from activities and friends. The senior honors student struggled to complete assignments. He wondered if he’d be able to go on to college. “I had no hope,” he says.
Finding Hope in an ESPN Article
Brad, a huge sports fan, finally found hope in an ESPN article about a professional baseball player’s long recovery from a season-ending concussion. The article described his symptoms and treatment he received at the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh.
“I could relate to many of the symptoms he described,” says Brad.
He also was intrigued by the approach of Michael “Micky” Collins, PhD, the program’s clinical and executive director. Unlike other doctors, Dr. Collins instructed the pro athlete to fight through the symptoms, saying, “Don’t run from the fire, run toward it.”
“I knew I had to go to Pittsburgh,” he says.
“You Need to Trust Me”
In December 2020 — five months after his initial concussion — Brad traveled to Pittsburgh to meet with Dr. Collins and his team.
“I asked him if I’d ever feel normal again,” says Brad. “Dr. Collins was very reassuring. He said, ‘You need to trust me. You need to trust the process.’”
Brad went through a battery of tests, including the ImPACT® Baseline Concussion Test developed by experts now at UPMC. He learned he had three different types of concussions: vestibular, ocular, and anxiety/mood.
Dr. Collins told Brad to stop recording symptoms and “no more six out of 10 stuff.” He was instructed to return to his activities, seek out loud, busy, overstimulating environments, and fight through the symptoms.
“Everything I had been avoiding, I was told to start again. If something hurts, keep doing it — and turn it up a notch,” says Brad.
The Road to Recovery
Brad went home to Norwalk determined to embrace his old life — and more. He returned to the gym, went to restaurants with friends (the noisier the better), and began playing video games again. He also attended professional sporting events (including 40 Major League Baseball games) and started driving again.
This “exposure and recovery” strategy targets vestibular issues. To address his vision problems, Dr. Collins and his team also gave Brad 3D glasses to use while doing things on the computer. They’re designed to retrain the injured brain, so the eyes work together again.
“I felt like it was ripping my eyes apart. It was physically painful, but it ultimately corrected my vision,” says Brad.
At his six-week follow-up visit, Brad was prescribed anxiety medicine. His recovery soon accelerated. “My mood was definitely getting in the way. It wasn’t letting me get to where I needed to be,” he says.
“Dr. Collins was right about everything. It was rough, but I kept going because I had this belief in him and the stories from other patients,” says Brad.
Brad graduated on time from high school and spent the summer traveling and going to sporting events. A year after beginning treatment, he enrolled at the University of Miami where he’s now pursuing a double major in finance and marketing. He’s doing well academically and enjoying life as a college student.
“Without Dr. Collins and UPMC, I don’t know where I’d be right now. I got my life back and more,” says Brad. “Everything I accomplish from this point on is because of Dr. Collins and his team. I’m forever in their debt.”