US Hall of Fame goalie Tim Thomas chose his induction ceremony to share his battle with brain damage caused by injuries he sustained playing hockey. He’d been reluctant to talk about his issues until then and had a difficult time even understanding what had happened to him.
Speaking about his concussions and the problems they caused in a recent piece for the Associated Press, he said, “I couldn’t believe it because I couldn’t function well enough to understand it.”
Multiple Concussions Affected Thomas’ Ability to Communicate
According to Thomas, he was unable to communicate with anyone after a concussion he suffered in 2013. It wasn’t his first, but he knew it was different the previous ones. Doctors told him after the event that two-thirds of his brain was receiving less than five percent blood flow and the remaining third was getting only about 50 percent.
It took Thomas years to process the diagnosis and what had led to his condition.
Thomas’ career was filled with many highlights, including a Stanley Cup championship win with the Boston Bruins in 2011. He was awarded playoff MVP and maintained career stats good enough to get him elected to the US Hockey Hall of Fame. It was at that point he chose to share his story and speak about how the multiple concussions he suffered while playing had had long-term effects on his life.
A single concussion incident and other mild traumatic brain injuries tend to completely resolve themselves relatively quickly – within a couple of weeks. But multiple concussions can lead to serious long-term cognitive and physical challenges and are believed to contribute to a type of dementia known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE causes brain damage and affects memory and executive functioning.
Anyone who experiences three or more concussions without receiving proper treatment is more likely to suffer from long-term cognitive impairment. This is especially true if the brain is not given an opportunity to heal before a subsequent injury. For many people, it isn’t about how many concussions they’ve had but about whether their brain healed from one before being exposed to another.
According to Thomas, he’s better now but nowhere near normal. He says he wakes up each day and spends hours organizing his thoughts and creating a list of things to do.
Though he suffered several concussions during his career, it was the one in 2013 that had the greatest impact on his life. Thomas says he woke up the morning after it happened and wasn’t able to make any decisions or plan his schedule. The symptoms lingered and he struggled to make it through the rest of the season, saying he basically just followed along with whatever the team was doing.
At the end of the season ended, he retired.
Thomas Isolated Himself to Deal with His Struggles
In the years that followed his retirement, he had difficulty communicating and wasn’t able to watch hockey because he couldn’t keep up with the games. He moved his family to a remote location to get away from things that bothered him and refused to speak to his former teammates and close family members.
During that time, he reflected on his career and questioned whether his achievements were worth the damage that had been done to his brain.
Now, Thomas knows he is past the pain and doubt and believes he has learned a lot from the experience. He says it ultimately brought him closer to his family and taught him the value of his life and his brain. He says he has no regrets and appreciates everything more than ever.
Despite coming to terms with things, he’s not interested in being involved with hockey in the future. He’s attended just one game since his retirement and was able to visit with old teammates, but knows the game he loved damaged him and doesn’t see a future in coaching or any other role.
Concussion Injuries Taken More Seriously in Modern Sports
Both amateur and professional sports in general, including the NHL, have made rule changes in recent years to address concussion concerns. They’ve changed diagnosis and return to play protocols, and have made an effort to educate players and change the overall culture of the game. Those advocating change say they want to make players feel more comfortable talking about their symptoms. The goal is to do everything possible to diagnose and treat concussions and head injuries properly and reduce lifelong effects as much as possible.
Despite choosing to share his story at his induction, Thomas still doesn’t feel completely comfortable talking about it. He has not been critical of the NHL or the players’ association and has chosen instead to learn everything he can to help his brain and improve how it functions.
As a Registered Social Worker and Clinical Therapist and founder of Shift Collab, a therapy practice based in Toronto, Canada, Megan Rafuse sees first hand the challenges faced by clients who experienced a concussion, whether as a result of a sports injury or accident.
“When it comes to concussion related mental health treatment in male athletes, the importance of naming and acknowledging the symptoms that often go undiscussed, such as brain fog, low mood and overwhelm, is paramount. I remind my clients that when it comes to a physical injury, such as a brain injury or concussion, mental health should be just as much a priority within a strong treatment plan as physical health.”
Rafuse knows first hand the symptoms of concussion, “With a concussion diagnosis, symptoms such as increased irritability, increased sense of overwhelm, depression, fatigue, difficulty with word finding and increased anxiety are common,” she stated. “What isn’t often discussed in the long list of symptoms is grief, a normal response to any kind of loss including the loss of routine, feeling like oneself, performing at work and playing their sport of choice. For many, grief can look like isolation (not to mention the often prescribed reduction in screen time which limits our online social lives), along with a feeling of anger at self or others, feeling hopeless and having a difficult time concentrating. Combine this with what my clients call “sensory overload”, the feeling of being overwhelmed by stimuli in their environment including sounds, lights and movement and it is a recipe for increased risk of mental illness.
As a concussion survivor myself, I felt shame in my lack of ability to perform basic tasks that “should” have been easy. I also felt like a burden to those that I care about and due to the often ignored mental health symptoms, I had been feeling isolated and alone with the fear that I may never fully recover. I was a therapist at the time and what did I do? I tried to hide my feelings, isolate myself and in turn noticed a plummet in my mental wellness. Luckily for me, I had friends who saw me changing and encouraged me to seek therapy to chat about these symptoms. In therapy, I found relief, normalization and a professional who could help me navigate tasks such as organizing my schedule, managing my emotions and coping with change. Learning to accept help was a skill I had to practice, but it made me stronger as I continued to recover.”
In treating for a concussion Rafuse emphasizes therapy as an important part of any treatment protocol, “When we normalize mental health treatment as a clear part of concussion recovery, it saves lives. Symptoms that feel so overwhelming start to become more manageable. A professional clinical therapist is skilled to help you build tools to manage difficult emotions, improve your coping strategies (including non-screen time activities), and strengthen connections with loved ones who care about you. A therapist can also help you manage the emotions tied to betrayal of a sport that you once loved and share the journey of recovery with you. When we talk about our struggles, we soon learn that others may share similar experiences that they too are fearful of sharing. There is no shame when we bring our true stories to light and there is strength in taking care of yourself, so that you can live to share your life with the people who care about you.”