Local Hospital Helps College Football Player after 9th Concussion

Blake Whitsell of Loveland, Colo., was a talkative, social, and funny guy. That is, until the then 20-year-old suffered his 9th concussion last fall. After that, he couldn’t carry on a meaningful conversation.

Whitsell, who played defensive tackle on South Dakota State University’s football team, suffered his 3rd concussion in a row at football camp last fall; his 9th in his lifetime. The team doctor recommended that he retire from the sport.

Following this concussion, the history and political science major couldn’t remember anything that he studied. “I couldn’t read one line and remember it,” Whitsell says. He moved home and returned to college the following semester. But, his troubles continued.

Whitsell and his parents continued to look for help. Eventually, a neurologist recommended Northern Colorado Rehabilitation Hospital, where he began receiving speech therapy on an outpatient basis.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Whitsell says. “I understood what physical and occupational therapy was, but not speech therapy. I just had to trust the process.”

Nearly 1.3 million people suffer from concussions every year, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A concussion is a brain injury caused by a blow or jolt to the head or body that forcibly slides the brain back and forth. The brain, which is the consistency of gelatin, is cushioned by fluid inside the skull. A jarring blow can stretch and damage the brain cells and create chemical changes. It also can lead to bleeding in or around the brain.

“While many of us don’t have to worry about participating in activities that put us at risk for continuous concussions – like football – anyone can suffer one,” says Dr. Revelyn Arrogante, Medical Director of Northern Colorado Rehabilitation Hospital. “There is no such thing as a ‘mild’ brain injury; all concussions should be taken seriously.”

Concussions can cause a variety of symptoms, including drowsiness, confusion, difficulty in thinking clearly, concentrating, or remembering things. Symptoms of a concussion may occur right away, while others may not be noticed until days or months after the injury.

“With long-term effects, a person may look fine, but may act and feel differently without realizing that it’s a result of the concussion,” Arrogante says. “Early treatment of concussion symptoms can help speed recovery and prevent further injury down the road. Ignoring concussion symptoms usually makes them worse.”

“Looking back, I wish I would have known more about concussions,” Whitsell says. “Maybe I would have stopped football earlier. But, I have to say, my football training is what got me through my therapy. It was tough.”

Whitsell worked regularly with speech therapist, Callie Halstead, for three months. She provided Whitsell with meta-cognitive strategy training, which involves “thinking about your thinking” in context of attention, memory, and reasoning exercises.

“I also provided Blake with an extensive home exercise program to help him generalize what we did in our sessions so he could apply it to his daily life,” Halstead says. “He was a fantastic rehabilitation candidate. He did everything I asked him to do, and he quickly saw positive results.”

Six to eight weeks into therapy, friends started to notice Whitsell’s focus was much better, and he was able to once again build relationships and connections with others. As her progressed, he began beating people with “normal” brain scores. He went from a self-proclaimed “C” student to an “A” student, even getting a 97% on his final spring paper.

“I know I wouldn’t have gotten better without therapy,” Whitsell says. “Therapy has given me my life back; it’s helped me in every aspect of my life. While at the hospital, I was treated like a friend, not like I was a patient. I was sad to see therapy end. I call Callie my brain teacher – she gave me a super brain! She’s my hero.”