Injured and isolated
Ireland Gomes spent most of her seventh-grade year in sports sitting on the bench and occasionally listening to music. But it wasn't by choice. A soccer injury earlier that year left her with a severe concussion, and completely isolated.
"It was at a soccer practice, not a game, and we were scrimmaging against our own team," said the West Linn High School sophomore. "Nobody really saw it. It just kind of looked like I fell."
Gomes bumped heads with another player before falling and hitting the back of her head on the ground. The soccer ball then delivered a third blow to her head — all within seconds.
Gomes said she momentarily blacked out, but finished the practice session.
"I knew I only had 10 minutes left (so) I got back up and kept playing," Gomes said. "It wasn't until (I was) in the car that I realized something was wrong."
Gomes never touched a soccer ball again.
'How hurt are you really?'
Gomes considered her seventh-grade year at Rosemont Ridge Middle School a write-off. Suffering from debilitating headaches, dizziness, insomnia and a loss of 80 percent vision in one eye, Gomes spent the better part of the school year in and out of therapies — physical, oc
cupational, visual and speech.
Her reading speed and comprehension dramatically declined, and "I couldn't remember how to add or subtract," she said. "It took most of the year to get back to learning the things I knew — not even learning new things — and it wasn't until the beginning of eighth-grade year that everything kind of started to click again."
Her teachers placed her on an educational plan that gave her extra time on assignments and allowed her to be dismissed early to avoid hallway noise and crowds.
But she still struggled.
"I never had a will to do anything because I knew I was doing it wrong or I couldn't remember how to do it," Gomes said.
Her social life took a hit as well. Gomes said her peers thought she was faking symptoms to slack off on assignments. Students would even throw plastic water bottles at her head in the hallway because they thought she was lying.
"Like all head injuries, it's not visible (so) how hurt are you really?" said Vity Gomes, Ireland's father. "Peers in that age — young, stupid, don't get it — didn't help the cause. Socially, there was no support, even from some of the school staff, because it's not a broken arm (where) you can see it. With concussions, there's nothing physically that you see."
Though Gomes' soccer injury was her only diagnosed concussion, her family and a concussion specialist at Oregon Health & Science University think her head damage was cumulative.
"Two months before this incident, she was at camp, being pulled by a boat while in an inner tube, and she flew off the tube and smashed her head against somebody's shin," said Rhonda Gomes, Ireland's mother.
As a toddler, Gomes ended up in the hospital after hitting her head on a cement floor and later fell at a skating rink and hit her head. "So we don't know," Rhonda Gomes said.
The long haul
During the final months of Gomes' freshman year at West Linn High School, doctors told her she couldn't play contact sports again.
"There's still things in my life that are lasting problems that frustrate me," said Gomes, who has taken up tennis to feed her competitive nature.
She still struggles with reading speed and comprehension, occasional headaches and neck pain — despite ongoing physical therapy.
Gomes also is experiencing severe migraines with visual auras and vomiting. At times, she said, parts of her body go numb, and if she's writing a word, she can only see one letter at a time.
She has been admitted to the emergency room twice since the soccer injury but no one knows if those scares were concussion-related.
"This is a kid that will avoid the hospital at all costs," Vity Gomes said. "It's been a long haul."
Times have changed
Vity Gomes, who grew up playing hockey and football, is grateful that concussion awareness has increased.
"I'm standing in front of a 100 mile-per-hour frozen puck that is rattled off my bean a number of times," he recalled. "For sure we were concussed, but 'your bell was rung,' it wasn't a 'concussion.' It was 'Shake it off and get back out there.' "
His daughter wanted to play in a soccer game a few days after her injury, but a coach kept Ireland Gomes out — which allowed time for the concussion to be diagnosed.
But Ireland Gomes still thinks there's more that can be done, including giving all student athletes a baseline test of their cognitive functions.
If you don't have baseline testing, she said, players, who are eager to compete, might get cleared to return too soon. "If they do get hit in the head again, it's going to be a lot worse to deal with," she said. "I just think it needs to be dealt with properly the first time."
Rhonda Gomes wants to see more concussion education in schools. She said videos on concussion effects would help show athletes how serious the injuries are, in hopes they will speak up if they suffer head trauma.
"People are afraid to talk because they don't want to squash their dreams," she said. "I think this should be explained to every parent whose kid is playing sports; I think it needs to be not just to the kids, not just to the coaches, (but) the parents. They're the ones that see their kid every day."