Heading for Trouble: Personal Account No. 2

Charlotte's injury occurred at the biggest show jumping competition in the country. Courtesy Charlotte Henderson

[Ed.'s Note: In the latest issue of The Mag, senior writer Peter Keating examines the dangers of concussions for female athletes, who are 68% more likely to be concussed than their male counterparts. Here, Charlotte Henderson, gives the second in a series of five personal accounts from women who have suffered concussions on the field of play.]

I was a competitive equestrian in the show jumping world. I've loved horses since I can remember and have been riding them since I was four years old. This was not just a hobby for me -- it was my passion.

I used to ride seven days a week, and my longest partner has been my horse Ellie, which is short for Spellbound. My younger sister followed directly behind me as a passionate show jumper also, and we were able to finally convince my father to buy a house on a horse farm. My mom grew up riding horses and still rides them today. She has been our biggest source of support. She actually drives a Dodge Ram 3500 diesel with a 32-foot horse trailer all over the East Coast for our shows.

My injury occurred two years ago at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., which is the country's largest and most prestigious international horse show. The whole scene was so cool -- I was competing in the level right below the Grand Prix division, which is the most competitive in show jumping, and my trainer was an Olympic rider. If I performed well, I had a legitimate chance to be invited to the Junior Olympics for the U.S. team -- my lifelong goal.

But as I approached a series of jumps set close to five feet high, my horse unexpectedly took off a stride early. A split second later I was on the ground. My head had hit both my horse's neck and the ground. I was wearing a state-of-the-art riding helmet, and I did not lose consciousness, but I was taken by stretcher to an ambulance.

After a CT scan, the doctors told me I had a "non-remarkable concussion," along with a sprained neck and a broken rib. The emergency room physician told me to take it easy for a few days and I would be back to normal.

I felt very disoriented, but a few days later, I flew back to school, and back to my normal courses. About 10 days after that, I began a limited exercise routine, being careful of my neck and rib. Within a few days, I took a turn for the worse. I had headaches, I wasn't sleeping well and I was depressed, which was not like me. One morning, I physically could not get out of bed and I couldn't talk. I ended up in the emergency room.

Neurologists determined that I had post-concussion syndrome. I was told to rest and recover and was assured I was going to be back to normal relatively soon. For the next few months, I wasn't able to read without getting disoriented. My balance was impaired -- when I tried to stand up, I would fall down and would have to hold onto a wall. I couldn't exercise or drive a car -- so at 18 years old, I was pretty much homebound. Thankfully, my Mom was watching my every step.

As the months grinded by, I was not improving. I was having partial brain seizures and was often speaking with a southern drawl without even knowing it. Fortunately, we were able to control my seizures with medication, but my balance was still a major issue, and I was passing out many times each day. I began feeling very strongly that some doctors and friends believed my problems were now psychological, not physical.

I was fortunate to connect with a cutting-edge neuro-otologist, whose care and concern for me knew no boundaries. He discovered I had damaged both my inner ears. It would take two major surgeries, which involved drilling my skull and putting valves in to release the pressure, but I was happy to discover there was more to be done that could help me recover. I was also relieved that I was not the emotional mess some thought I was.

Now my physical and emotional health is improving. I can drive a car during the daytime, practice yoga and do light exercise. I am slowly re-engaging my life as a 20-year-old. Last month, I got back on my horse -- just to sit, not to ride. I know this is all possible because I had an incredibly caring support team. But deep down, I believe if I was diagnosed properly, or told to proceed very slowly immediately after my head injury, then I probably would have healed much, much faster.

Head traumas do not have "cookie cutter" solutions.

Charlotte Henderson, 20, lives in Princeton, N.J.

Read Nicole Fresella's personal account of her injury