Head Case: The Advocacy and Triumph of Kylee Bliss

When parents are prepping for their children to go back to school, often there are mental checklists that are made. They account for supplies, new clothes, new shoes, maybe new schools and schedules. They account for meals and pickup times. They account for sports. But neither ‘rents nor kids ever give legitimate time to think about the possibility of their little lambs suffering concussions — but they should.

In the case of a young lady by the name of Kylee Bliss, going back to school and not knowing the dangers of what concussions would mean to her health changed her entire life.

In November 2011, Bliss was a 16-year-old sophomore at Blue Valley High School in Stilwell, Kansas. An athlete for all of her childhood and adolescence, Bliss was competing for an opportunity to possibly win the starting point guard position for her varsity basketball team and optimistic about the future.

It was early into the process. It was the first day of practice and Bliss was competing when it happened. It’s a little hazy, because she doesn’t exactly remember it. As she was told, Bliss collided with a teammate while making a play on the ball. She suffered her first known concussion from the collision.

“I had never heard of concussions, I didn’t know it was even a thing,” said Bliss. Practice went on, and she went on with it, but she soon sought a doctor. After evaluation, she was ordered to have “brain rest”. Explained Bliss in a phone interview, “I didn’t understand any of the rules, I was always on my (cell) phone,” a no-no as prolonged cell phone usage have been shown to alter brain waves during various studies that have indicted them as potential health hazards. Bliss explained that she spent a prolonged amount of time out of school, ignoring her doctor’s orders to abstain from physical activity and prolonged cell phone use.

Awaiting the chance to really make an impact for her team, Bliss said that she was able to figure out that while accounting for Christmas break, she could come back to practice and get enough reps in to be conditioned, and make an early January 2012 return after missing her team’s first few games. But that meant, in her words, lying to her doctor about her symptoms subsiding in order to return early from the indefinite mandated rest — a clear sign that she was not out of the danger zone for another injury.

Her plan to return early succeeded, as Bliss returned to play the first few games of 2012 with no debilitating injury, only to sustain another concussion three games into her return to the court. The back of her head violently hitting the wooden floor in a fall she took after being hit in the nose with an opponent’s elbow.

She never played another game of basketball.

Though Bliss’ desire to return to the court backfired with horrific results, but it’s more complex than that. Misdiagnoses of concussions are a frequent occurrence, and while Bliss’ first concussion was caught, ignorance about when a person is ready to resume activity can be sketchy.

“A lot of this is subjective, and that’s why we’re working on objective measurements,” said Dr. Beth McQuiston, a board-certified neurologist and medical director at Abbott, where she researches the root biological affects and effects of traumatic brain injury.

“If you can prevent the injury, then…that is the optimal situation, because the best injury is no injury,” said McQuiston by phone. “The developing brain is more vulnerable to injury.”

According to McQuiston, concussions in young children can lead to severe medical issues and problems in cognition and behavior. Children who suffer concussions are seen to have worse cognitive issues than adults after one year of being concussed.

“This translates to problems in schoolwork, problems in their home life, conduct changes/conduct problems, personality changes, they may have a diminished attention span, they may not be acting quite like the child you had prior to the concussion, and also bringing up Kylee…after you have one concussion, you’re more likely to have another (within the first 10 days after being concussed the first time),” said McQuiston.

This condition is exactly what Bliss endured — a condition known as post-concussion syndrome, or PCS.

The young high schooler-turned-PCS sufferer went from a happy athlete to a brooding teen who would lash out against her mother, Ginger Bliss, in brain-maimed fits of rage and frustration in an 18-month-long recovery. Kylee detailed that she suspects Ginger feels “awful” about her past ignorance concerning the damaging effects of concussions. “I was a different person (while recovering),” said Kylee. “I feel bad about (being hurtful toward my mom).”

Kylee, with mother Ginger

“I couldn’t go to school, I just never felt good,” Kylee said bitterly. I was grieving. I lost my identity — school, everything was taken away. It was a long 18 months of trying to figure out how to move on and how to accept the fact that I would never be an athlete again, that I would probably never be a great student again.”

Kylee recovered, graduated high school, and is now a freshman at the University of Kansas. In the time since she played her last game of hoops up until now, Bliss has become a spokesperson for PASS (Protecting Athletes and Sports Safety), which serves to make student-athletes and parents aware of the dangers of serious sports injuries. She is also the founder of the HeadsUp Foundation for PCS, which is a concussion advocacy group devoted to creating awareness for post-concussion syndrome. Kylee’s advocacy has led her to into public speaking, organizing charitable events, and even being hosted by ESPN Radio, all of which she takes part in to make parents and children aware of the dangers of PCS through promoting injury prevention and care.

Despite all of her progress, Kylee still struggles with her vision and stammering headaches. She wears special glasses to help her see and receives constant treatment for pain, in addition to various forms of therapy. For the young Jayhawk, her two known concussions have drastically altered her life, but she remains positive, having expressed gratitude in being able to help other young athletes who are victims of PCS.

Bliss’ advice for student-athletes?

“Be 100% honest (about your symptoms). You only have one (brain).”

McQuiston was even more emphatic.

“The best injury is no injury — the best injury is no injury!”

Sandy Dover is a media producer, feature writer and event correspondent-photographer whose work has been heavily featured at Yahoo!, SLAM, and ESPN. Currently serving as Senior Editor and Partner of Complex Media partner The BMF and as a multimedia contributor to espnW, you can follow Sandy on Twitter: @Sandy_Dover.

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