ST. CLOUD — “I’m just stupid now.”
That’s what Luke Schmidt told a group of friends after catching a football at a party this spring. His friends were stunned he was able to make the catch. He had been off the hockey team since winter break and was attending school only with major restrictions.
All that time, the brain of 15-year-old Schmidt was healing from a concussion. Or more likely, a series of concussions.
His was one of the 10 percent of concussions that don’t clear up in three weeks. So for the past eight months, the Sartell, Minn., teen, his parents, teachers and medical staff have done what they can to allow Luke’s brain to heal while balancing his need to keep up in school and with friends.
“Return to play” is the refrain most heard around concussion recovery. Less visible is “return to learn.”
Karla Fleming, an outpatient speech and language pathologist with CentraCare Health Adult Rehabilitation, tries to emphasize to her patients that a brain injury doesn’t change intellect. It changes how you access information.
“So I validate them. ‘You’re as smart as you are. Your brain isn’t letting you be as efficient as before because it’s trying to heal,’ “ she said.
In December, Schmidt got hit in a hockey game and felt funny. But his parents thought he just needed some rest. Later, he was hit again and took himself out of the game.
Within 30 seconds of entering the doctor’s office, the doctor confirmed he had a pretty severe concussion.
‘A tickling feeling’
For the first two months, Schmidt reported feeling like there was a rock on his forehead, the result of a swollen brain touching his skull.
“It was a tickling feeling,” he said.
At first, he wasn’t allowed to read, watch TV or even listen to music.
“I was very bored,” he said.
“But if he did anything, he would get symptoms and get sick,” said Luke’s mother, Tina Schmidt.
Trying to return to school was frustrating. Luke, an A student in math, couldn’t figure out seven plus five.
“It made me cry,” his mom said.
Shaky return to school
In mid-February, Luke went back to school on a very restricted schedule. He wore sunglasses and a hat to block light and rested between classes. He was attending only two at the time: math and science. He did no homework or reading, spent no time on the iPad. He got special glasses, designed to stop him from seeing double. He also stayed away from stimulating environments, such as the cafeteria at lunch time.
He attended therapy with Fleming to practice cognitive skills. His mother was surprised by how exhausted Luke could be after therapy appointments, even when they did what could be considered basic stuff.
Tina Schmidt and her husband Paul also had a lot of discussions with other parents, who sometimes wondered if they were overreacting.
“I wish we were,” Tina Schmidt said.
Finally, after several weeks, he was given the OK to listen to books and music. “He was isolated from everything,” Tina said.
Tina thinks Luke experienced situational depression, being isolated from school and friends. “He was just kind of lost,” she said.
Seeing ‘the old Luke’
Today, he’s back to making playful jabs with his 16-year-old brother John. He started laughing again. He was up to 30 minutes of homework by spring.
“As he’s healing, we started to see the old Luke,” Tina Schmidt said. “Seeing him happy again was a relief to me. It’s so much of who he was.”
He’s now skating and practicing with no contact. He still attends therapy a couple times a week, working on memory, eye coordination and more.
Luke started classes last week as a ninth grader at Cathedral High School.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I can’t wait.”