Slowly, Sartell teen returns to normal after concussion

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ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — "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, the St. Cloud Times ( ) reported.

His was one of the 10 percent of concussions that don't clear up in three weeks. So for the past eight months, he, 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 just thought he 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.

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," Tina said.

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 only attending two at the time: math and science. He got notes before class, so his eyes wouldn't have to adjust quickly back and forth from the board to his notes.

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. Tina was surprised by how exhausted Luke could be after therapy appointments, even when they did what could be considered basic stuff.

Tina and her husband Paul Schmidt also had a lot of discussions with other parents, who sometimes wondered if they were overreacting.

"I wish we were," Tina said.

Finally, after several weeks, he was given the OK to listen to books and music. "(To) keep the kid from getting depressed. 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.

Thinking back, Tina says they had seen a lot of changes in Luke that fall, including academically. He was missing assignments. They thought maybe he developed attention deficit disorder. After experiencing the diagnosed concussion, Tina thinks he may have gotten a concussion at practice over the summer that was never diagnosed.

"As he's healing, we started to see the old Luke," she said. "We have a ways to go. But the little things started to come back."

He's back to making playful jabs with his 16-year-old brother John. He started laughing again.

"Seeing him happy again was a relief to me. It's so much of who he was," she said.

Over the next few months, restrictions lightened, and he was up to 30 minutes of homework by spring.

It required teamwork: Tina and Luke worked with school counselors, teachers and medical professionals. Making matters worse, Luke's concussion was a hidden disability.

"Luke seemed like he was fine," Tina said. "He was joking around with friends."

Tina had to bring in doctors to say: He's not faking it. And he's far from being healed.

By the end of the year, Luke could get through the school day with no symptoms. In the summer months, it was a little harder to gauge how he was progressing.

He's still having trouble with language and reading comprehension. Anything that's more black and white, concrete, like math, is easier for him. Luke hopes to become an engineer.

Along the way, he felt less a part of his friends group, many of whom were from hockey. He had been team captain, but they voted someone else in.

He still hopes to go back to the team, but his parents are unsure.

"It's a sense of belonging," she said. "But hockey is yet to be determined."

He's now skating and practicing with no contact. He still attends therapy with Fleming a couple of 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. I can't wait," he said.


Information from: St. Cloud Times,

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