By Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer
Northborough – For Algonquin junior Alyssa Pfannenstiel, a momentary collision on the soccer field during pre-season tryouts in August of 2011 changed her life. Alyssa suffered a severe concussion, resulting in dizziness, loss of memory, difficulty focusing and frequent headaches. She was pulled from school, eventually working her way back to partial days. Alyssa attended a total of 40 days her sophomore year.
Alyssa's mother, Michelle, works as an occupational therapist in the brain trauma ward at Fairlawn Rehabilitation Hospital in Worcester. Her background has allowed her to help Alyssa navigate life post-concussion, helping with her physical recovery as well as her school work. Despite her injury, Alyssa managed to make the honor roll and earned membership into the National Honor Society.
When Alyssa's symptoms failed to go away in a timely fashion, her parents took her to Boston Children's Hospital for evaluation. They learned that the brain trauma Alyssa suffered, coupled with nerve damage from an earlier leg injury, caused Alyssa's nervous system to overload, resulting in post-concussion syndrome (PCS), a mild form of traumatic brain injury (TBI). With PCS, symptoms associated with the concussion persist for weeks, months, or even years after the injury.
As a junior, Alyssa has worked diligently to maintain some semblance of a normal student life.
“The concussion continues to have a huge impact on my daily life. I never know the level of pain I will feel each day and, because it is so unpredictable, I often can's make it into school,” Alyssa said. “I have had to rely almost entirely on my family for support since most of my friends have been living the life of a busy teenager, which I no longer can.”
Although the concussion has negatively affected Alyssa's life in many ways, it has also served to open her eyes to others who are suffering.
“Since getting the concussion, I feel like I am more aware of people struggling all around me. When you see me, I look like I am perfectly fine and, because I know this isn’t the case, I have found the courage to support others who don's always receive the support they deserve just because their situation isn’t truly what it appears to be,” she said.
While Alyssa no longer competes in any of the sports she once loved, she has used the injury she sustained on the playing field to help educate others.
A Girl Scout since kindergarten, Alyssa has recently been working on her Gold Award, the highest achievement in Girl Scouts. For her community service project, she has created a Facebook page and has been speaking to athletic and educational groups about the realities of concussions.
“The Facebook page is a place where I hope to educate athletes and their parents about concussions. I hope it will be used as a tool and will offer a network of support where resources can be shared,” Alyssa said.
She has spoken to the lacrosse, volleyball and softball teams at her high school. She has also shared her story with parent groups and the local Parent-Teacher Organization. Her message, she said, is about hope and support. Alyssa's goal is to create awareness by speaking at events involving student athletes, parents, and coaches.
“No one ever expects that they will suffer a concussion, but if it happens, the most important thing is to understand it,” she said.
Despite her continued struggles with dizziness, loss of memory, difficulty focusing and headaches, and despite her inability to attend a full day of school, Alyssa feels like her suffering is for a greater purpose.
“I do feel like there is a reason for this happening,” she said. “We have a family motto that “everything happens for a reason” so if the point of me getting this concussion is to provide compassion and support for those struggling in similar situations; I definitely feel it's worth it.”
Alyssa plans to graduate with her class next May and hopes to become a nurse practitioner in an emergency room.
To learn more about life after a concussion, visit Alyssa's Facebook page, “Conquering Your Concussion” athttps://www.facebook.com/ConqueringYourConcussion?fref=ts.
To contact Alyssa regarding a speaking engagement, contact the Facebook page or send her an email at [email protected].