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Let's talk about Traumatic Brain Injuries

By Katherine Donnelly on

Hitting your head is a big deal. All it takes is just one moment of impact to change your life forever. Every aspect of your life - from your mental health and emotions, to your cognitive abilities and even your physical prowess - can be affected. You really don't realize just how critical your brain is in every regard until it stops working correctly. And the road to recovery can be very long, annoyingly bumpy, and extremely frustrating for everyone involved. 

Now I'm not here writing this to scare you...but rather to bring awareness to the struggle that not only myself but so many others deal with on a daily basis. In 2011, I sustained a traumatic brain injury while skiing. I am writing this on March 17th, 2021 - exactly ten years to the day of my injury. I continue to deal with the side effects of my TBI to this day, and will very likely spend the rest of my life living around the permanent symptoms and damage done. 



So, why do we need to talk about brain injuries?

I am incredibly fortunate to be able to do so many things in my life that I love, and to be where I am today. Sure, I've worked my ass off to get to where I am - and I couldn't have done it without support from others. But so many don't have the resources, the support systems, or the financial means to come back from a brain injury - and what makes it even harder is that brain injuries are invisible. The world around you keeps moving, and there is nothing - no physical scar, no bandage or sling - to show that you're hurting or struggling. You are expected to be the same person, when in reality everything about you has changed in the blink of an eye. 

Not only that, but getting diagnosed with a brain injury is a struggle in itself. Advancements in the medical field recently are making this process easier for doctors and patients alike, but it is still an uphill battle to figure out just what's happening. It can feel like you're going crazy, trying to describe your symptoms while simultaneously juggling them in the moment: persistent fatigue, mood swings, dizziness, nausea, depression, social anxiety, panic attacks, brain fog, disorientation, confusion, memory loss....and that's just to name a few from my own plight. Every test and scan I underwent showed that nothing was wrong with me, and yet my symptoms continued to spiral out of control. It was nearly a full year after my accident when I was finally diagnosed with a TBI, and was given the resources and support to begin my journey of healing.

Thank you Mom for always making me wear a helmet <3

Wear a Helmet!

I am a big advocate for wearing a helmet while skiing or snowboarding; I regularly lecture my friends on it, and very often refuse to ride with someone if they aren't wearing a helmet. But the reality is that I was wearing a helmet when I sustained my TBI - and I often think about how that plays into my telling people to wear helmets: If I wore a helmet but still came away with a brain injury, then do they really help at all? While some have tried to sway me, the inevitable truth is YES. Helmets save lives. Period.

There is no doubt in my mind (or in my doctors' eyes, if you want a professional opinion) that if I hadn't been wearing my helmet back in 2011 I would be much worse off. There's not much room in my mind to delve into 'what ifs' these days, but I am incredibly thankful that I was protected from the full extent of what could have happened all those years ago. 

Second Impact Syndrome is very real.

Looking back on my unique injury (which every brain injury is), it is clear that my biggest mistake was not taking the proper time to rest and heal after the first impact. I hit my head twice in one run on a Wednesday afternoon, and while I wasn't feeling great by any means afterwards I was cleared by ski patrol and took that to mean that I was alright. And with a big storm leaving over a foot of fresh snow on the mountain overnight, I ignored the pain and pushed on.

Unfortunately, when I went back out skiing the next morning I had another crash - right to same exact place where I hit my head the day before. It was after this crash that I knew something was wrong, and it took about 15 minutes and a crowd of strangers to help get me back on my feet and snowplowing my way back to the lodge. 

None of my crashes were very big or detrimental on their own, but when your brain sustains trauma in succession without the necessary recovery time in between, things begin to get a whole lot more complicated. I've come to learn that this sort of event has a term of its own: Second Impact Syndrome. And while I urge people to wear helmets (and will continue to do so), I think my biggest lesson I want to pass on is for people to the time to heal. No matter how much fresh pow there is, no matter how enticing the mountain looks, there is never a reason to risk it. Take it from someone who made the mistake of chasing pow over seeking health: it's not worth it. 

This brings me to a final note about why we really need to talk about brain injuries, especially in action sports. There can be a lot of pressure on people - especially when riding competitively - to push themselves to get out, go big, and push through, even when they aren't feeling well. But with brain injuries, it can be so hard to know what is happening in your body and mind...and even harder to come to the conclusion to stay home to rest, and then articulating that to the people around you. It's just as important - if not more important! - for friends and family to show support and encourage recovery over 'sucking it up' for one day of skiing. It's not easy to cancel plans or miss the 'day of the year' because you have a small headache or feel nauseous, but it's time that we as an industry and a community begin to normalize the conversations that need to happen when someone hits their head. There's nothing wimpy about taking time to heal, when really all it means is that you'll be able to ski for years to come. 

It's important to remember to have fun with it, no matter where you are.

It takes a village, and support means more than you know.

Talking about brain injuries isn't easy, but because I am finally in a place where I am able to speak 'comfortably' about my own journey I find that it's almost my duty to open up and speak for those who can't yet do so.

If you or a loved one have gone through something like this, please know that I am always here and happy to talk about it. I may not have all the answers, but from my own experience I know just how powerful it can be to talk to someone who really gets it. If I can help at least one person feel heard or get on the right road to recovery, then I'll consider this all victory. You can reach me at or find me on Instagram or Facebook.  

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month!

Consider making a donation to an organization - like High Fives Foundation, who were instrumental in helping me recover - working to support those who have sustained brain injuries. 

Also, do your own search about brain health online and learn more about how to keep your head + mind healthy. Like....did you know that you don't even have to hit your head to sustain a concussion? There's a lot of info out there that can help keep you skiing (and smiling) for years and years to come. 


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