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Sidelined player moves on, steps up game in concussion awareness effort

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Above image credit: Participants got set to participate in the the first HeadsUp 10k trail run & 5k walk/run last year at Shawnee Mission Park. Organizers have scheduled the second event for Oct. 25. (Submitted photo)

A talented athlete, it was not out of the question that Kylee Bliss would be a scholarship basketball player at a small college.

As a sophomore point guard at Blue Valley High School, she practiced hard and had a real feel for the game. That trajectory changed, however, after she sustained two concussions on the court within an eight-week span.

In the immediate aftermath of the injuries, nearly three years ago, Bliss publicized her ongoing symptoms. She wanted to highlight for other high school athletes the seriousness of traumatic brain injuries.

But that’s not where the story ended: The reality is that Bliss still contends with the chronic headaches, dizziness, and concentration lapses that are common after-effects of concussions.

Her depth perception is also off.  “I can’t tell you how many times I have run into doors because it looks a lot farther,” she said.

Bliss, 18, is now a freshman at the University of Kansas. Still involved in sports from the sidelines – she works part-time in the KU football office – Bliss hopes to one day specialize in pediatric medicine.

She has also taken another step in her efforts to raise awareness about post-concussion syndrome (PCS) and spur research into the condition by forming a nonprofit, the HeadsUp Foundation for PCS.

Just three months after its establishment in August 2013, the foundation raised about $12,000 through its first HeadsUp 10K trail run and 5K walk/run at Shawnee Mission Park. There is a special significance to the trail run piece, and the second event is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Oct. 25th at Shelter No. 2 in Shawnee Mission Park.

Mike Sherry, a writer with the Hale Center for Journalism and the Heartland Health Monitor, recently met with Bliss, who spoke about the past events that inform her efforts today. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

Please start by walking me through [the events that led to] your concussions.

My first concussion was my first night of basketball tryouts my sophomore year, so 2011, and it wasn’t a big enough deal to stop practice. I just collided with another girl. … And so after practice in the locker room, I was just walking around. I had no clue who I was, where I was, when my birthday was, address, any of those things. And so the trainer, she called my Dad to come pick me up, and then I went to the doctor the next day, and it was confirmed I had a concussion. He said I should get brain rest — no talking on the phone, no texting, no watching T.V. And that was Tuesday when I went to see him, and then Wednesday morning I went to school.

Was that wrong or right?

No, that was wrong. But I begged my parents to let me go, and I told them that I was fine and that I didn’t really have a headache and all my other symptoms were gone. They weren’t, and I lasted, I think, a few hours, and then they sent me home.

What was happening? How come you only lasted a few hours?

My headache was really bad. I was dizzy. I asked my teacher to go fill up my water bottle, and I was gone for like 30 minutes, and nobody knew where I was. Eventually, they sent someone to come find me and I was sitting down, I was like, “I don’t know where I came from; I don’t know where I’m supposed to be.”

Not many people would be anxious to go back to school.

When I was diagnosed with a concussion, I had to be out until all my symptoms were completely gone, and then after that I had to have a week of working into playing. So, I knew it was going to be at least a week, if my symptoms were completely gone, so I was trying to speed that process up as quickly as possible.

The trainer would not let me practice until I was cleared by a doctor, and I knew that the doctor who had seen me before still wouldn’t clear me, so I had my Mom take me to a different doctor — just my family doctor, and I lied to him. I was just like, “No, I don’t have any headaches.” And for him, it was not fair at all to him. I put everyone in a bad situation. I wanted to play, and I didn’t want to let my team down, and so I did that, and he cleared me, and then I just had to wait a week, and then I went back.

Photo of Kylee Bliss

Kylee Bliss

So when did the second concussion occur?

It was my third game back. Somewhere, I think around the fourth quarter, it was a really close game, and my team hadn’t won a game yet, so that was another reason for me to get back. So I dove for a loose ball like I normally would, not thinking, “Oh my head still hurts I probably shouldn’t do that,” and I collided with a girl, and then I hit my head on the floor. And then after that, I came out for a few minutes. I was like “please put me back in the game,” and so (the coach) did. I got fouled right after I went back in, and I went to shoot the free throw to put us ahead. I got up there and I couldn’t see the basket. I was just disoriented, and I shot. I got close; I didn’t make it. That was the last time I ever played basketball.

What happened after the second concussion?

I went to speech therapy, vestibular therapy, and then I can’t even remember the other (therapists). There were a lot because the symptoms were still so bad every day. The first (concussion) happened right around winter break. So over that time, I wasn’t able to concentrate; I wasn’t able to remember. But once I went back, I took my finals. I failed every single one. On one, I got about a 12 percent on because I just could not focus; I could not remember any of it. So that was kind of like when everyone said, “OK, there is something really wrong here” because I have always gotten straight A’s  — OK there was like one B, but we don’t like to talk about that.

How long did it take before you started feeling decent again after the second one?

They started me on all these different types of medicines. Some of it helped, some of it didn’t. So until I really started feel better a little bit, it would’ve been more than a month, probably three, because I had to do the therapies and do all that stuff. It was more just learning how to manage the symptoms as opposed to them getting better because they are still all here.

You specifically wanted to make the 10K more difficult during the fundraiser. Why is that?

Running on a paved surface, for most people, it is a challenge. But to run on a mountain bike trail is just an added challenge. It takes more concentration and more effort. It is just kind of symbolic of how things that I used to be able to do very easily now just take extra time, and more work and more effort.

How are you working through the rigors of college classes?

I use pretty much all the time that I am not sleeping to study or work on other things. When I read, I have to take notes over every chapter, which takes longer. But if I don’t, I can read something, and I can read it 400 times and not tell you a word of what it says.

Mornings are really hard — just because my head, when I wake up, always hurts in the morning. So pushing yourself to get out of bed is rough. It hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be — being able to go to a class for 50 minutes and go home and take a nap and then study and go back to class has been a lot easier than going to school for seven or eight hours a day.

I just have to find my places where I can go study, like the Natural History Museum (on University of Kansas’ campus). People don’t go there during the day, so it’s very quiet. I have to find things that work for me, and just knowing — Thursday nights, it’s going to be loud; Saturday nights, it’s going to be loud. So, I just have to do other things to counteract what everybody else does.

What does your gut tell you about your long term prognosis? Do you think your symptoms will ever go away?

No, just because of the fact that I have lived with them every day for practically three years. But at the same time, that is OK. I have learned how to deal with them. You know, there are people who go through a lot worse. Obviously, I hope they will go away.

How do you feel about having established a foundation by the age of 18?

I am pretty proud of it, but more than anything, I just want to be able to hopefully prevent other people from going through the same things. All my friends go out and have a good time, and go to football games, and go to basketball games, and go to concerts and stuff. I can’t do those things without feeling bad for a week after. So I’ve had to grow up a lot quicker, and I’ve had to make those choices that, “Hey, I’m not going to go this concert because I have to do what is best for my health.”

Major Funding for Health coverage on KCPT provided by Assurant Employee Benefits and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

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