South Charlotte

Teen recovers slowly from major concussion

In January 2010, Mitch Richman, 50, received the call every parent dreads.

"There's been an accident," he was told. "Bring towels."

Richman raced out of his Providence Plantation home to the empty nearby construction lot where his daughter, Gabby, a Providence High School freshman at the time, was enjoying a surprise snowstorm and was sledding with friends.

Gabby and two of her friends had lost control of the sled they were on, causing it to crash into a metal bar the construction crew had left behind.

One friend had jumped off and the other, Hannah Wilkinson, 16, sustained a bloody cut to her forehead.

When Richman arrived on the scene, everyone was focused on Wilkinson, who appeared to have sustained the worst injury.

Gabby, who had been sitting in the front of the sled, had hit the pole with the front of her head and then fallen back on her friend from the impact, hitting the back of her head.

"We later learned that the blow was similar to what she'd experience in a car wreck," said Richman. She also cut her cheek, necessitating stitches.

When Richman asked his daughter how she was doing, she had no idea what was going on. It was then that he got the attention of the paramedics, telling them that Gabby appeared to have blacked out.

Both girls were taken to Presbyterian Hospital, where there was a skeletal staff because of the unexpected storm. Immobilized on a stretcher, Gabby was screaming about how much her head hurt.

An MRI revealed no damage to her brain but the doctors informed her parents that she had suffered a severe concussion. Gabby was sent home with instructions to be woken up every two hours and to take it easy.

She returned to school four days later thinking all was well.

"I figured I'd be out for about a week and then I'd be fine," she said.

But once she weaned herself off of her medications, it was clear she was far from well. Her headaches were so severe she began to leave school early or not go in at all. Her pediatrician referred her to a neurologist who conducted another MRI and tested her memory and speed of reaction to determine the extent of her concussion.

Gabby's scores were very low.

Now a junior at Providence High School, Gabby has still not returned to school. She is being taught at home through the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Homebound program and hopes to graduate with her class.

She has undergone many setbacks but has learned how to manage and control her concussion-related pain. She keeps TV and computer time to a minimum because too much stimulation exacerbates the headaches, and she tries to maximize her sleep, often sleeping in, because that is an important component of brain recovery.

She is also undergoing physical therapy and is on new medications.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Gabby's injury for her and her family has been the fact that there have been few outward signs of how badly she was hurt. One of her teachers actually dismissed her claims of being unable to keep up, telling her, "You look fine to me."

Many of her friends also abandoned her and failed to believe how much she was hurting.

"Just because I'm not in a wheelchair or in a cast doesn't mean I'm not impaired," Gabby said. "Pain is invisible," she said. "And people can be masters at hiding it."

It has been a long, hard road, but the severe concussion and its aftermath has not been without a plus side. Gabby had few interests or hobbies outside of cheerleading prior to her accident, but since the concussion, she has discovered her artistic side.

"I love to draw and paint and sew," Gabby said. "And I love all kinds of music."

She has also discovered her future vocation, saying she wants to be an art therapist and help other children who are as lost as she was.

But most of all, she has found an inner strength and faith.

"I feel like I've kind of found myself through this," she said.