On April 25, 2010, Washington Freedom goalkeeper Briana Scurry took the knee of a Philadelphia Independence forward to her temple at full velocity during a Women’s Professional Soccer match. She knew what concussions felt like; she had two documented ones before.
But this was no ordinary concussion. This was the concussion that refused to go away, ending her career. Scurry finally knew relief was on the horizon three years, five months and 25 days later, when she had bilateral occipital nerve surgery at Georgetown University.
For those 31/2 years, Scurry’s day-to-day activities resembled nothing close to the life she flourished in before the hit. In her post-concussive-symptom haze, Scurry felt anxiety about needing to go to the grocery store. She worried about the route she’d take to get there. When Scurry wasn’t anxious about her daily tasks, she folded under the pressure of her intense headaches.
“I was stripped of myself,” Scurry said. “It was like I was in someone else’s body.”
This past week, Scurry, 44, took her story to Congress for the second time. She spoke before the congressional brain injury task force, sharing her story from pre-concussion to present day.
Almost three years after her surgery and two years after she finished therapy, Scurry sees herself as an advocate for women’s health, especially in relation to concussions and traumatic brain injury (TBI). She finds speaking out therapeutic and figures if she, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a World Cup champion, received pushback in pursuit of finding relief, then what issues are young girls facing?
She was joined in her testimony by Joanne Finegan, Alison Cernich, Yelena Goldin, Mike Colson and Dr. Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, all experts in traumatic brain injuries. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D.-N.J.), the founder of the congressional brain injury task force, gave an opening statement.
“More has happened in the past five years than the past 500 years,” Pascrell said of brain injury research. “We know that men’s and women’s brains are not carbon copies of one another. We know that their incidents of TBI is different. We know that their recovery is different. We need to further dive into why.”
But getting the answer to the “why” question may not come so easily considering that women’s traumatic brain injury hasn’t been the subject of much research to date.
“It’s clear that concussion and brain injury of women has been sorely overlooked,” said Moser, the director of the Sports Concussion Center of New Jersey.
Cernich, the director of the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research, shared some of the known statistics, such as that women and girls suffer concussions 1.4 times more often than their counterparts in comparable sports. And often, the women and girls have a longer recovery period than those of men and boys.
“First and foremost, many of the studies currently underway need to do a little bit of a better job looking at sex as an important variable,” Cernich said.
Cernich also stressed that there’s still much more research to be done, even though there’s been an “explosion in the amount of information” for mild traumatic brain injuries, thanks in part to the Defense Department, the NCAA and professional sports organizations such as the NBA and NFL. However, that information doesn’t extend to the youngest generations.
As Goldin, who co-chairs a brain injury task force of the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine said, “girls grow up to be women with traumatic brain injuries.” And knowing more about younger children’s response to traumatic brain injuries is important.
Scurry hopes that her testimony, along with the other panel members’ knowledge, will help members of Congress understand the dangers and resulting issues of brain injuries. She wants those in lawmaking positions to be better informed and to take charge in making moves to change the way things are, including how visits to medical professionals are conducted.
When Scurry first visited doctors, she was misdiagnosed. She attributes it to the lack of knowledge when comparing men’s concussions to women’s concussions.
“One of the things doctors told me is, ‘You can’t possibly have post-concussive syndrome anymore because it’s been too long,’ ” Scurry said. “What does that mean? Been too long for who? Based on what? Was their understanding based on data from men only and how men ideally recover?”
Scurry said she didn’t ask her doctors these questions initially but thinks a lot about them now.
“Doctors who don’t know how to help need to just say, ‘I’m not sure about your situation,’ ” Scurry said. “Don’t make women or girls who come in there feel like they’re crazy. They’re not being emotional. They’re not being hysterical.”
And that’s where Scurry’s largest piece of advice comes into play. Be honest, she says. Be honest to everyone about how you’re doing, including loved ones, doctors, coaches, family members and everyone else associated with the process.
“It’s important to tell people and tell them how bad it can be,” Scurry said. “I had to make this into a positive. Those three years were so horrible for me. That’s why this means so much to me. It’s my passion now. I want to make a bigger difference in this next 40 years. I want my second 40 years to be more impactful and inspirational than my first 40. My mission now is to help folks with this in any way I can.”
With Scurry helping pave the way for research into women’s concussions, there are more research discoveries to be made. But Scurry remembers a time when that was a completely different story.
“When I started playing on the [U.S. women’s national team] in the mid-90s, you get your head hit, you get your bell rung, you shake it off,” Scurry said. “Unless you’re knocked out. Even if you’re knocked out, once you recover, you get up and you keep going. We didn’t know. . . . Back then, the treatment was to go sit in your room for a while and don’t fall asleep. Now we understand that if you get hit in the head, you need to get looked at. Err on the side of caution, which definitely is something we didn’t do back then. We now understand that the brain has been injured. And I don’t think we understood that or knew what that meant.”
Because of her passion for women’s health, Scurry has pledged to make a difference long after she’s gone. She plans to donate her brain to chronic traumatic encephalopathy research.
“I think it’s important that more doctors have female brains to look at to see the similarities and differences and progression of things,” Scurry said. “Obviously, I think my brain could be useful, but until I’m done with it, it’s mine.”