Back in the Swim
Patrick Champagne lived life at 150 mph. Competitive by nature, the Emmaus High School varsity swimmer spent up to 15 hours a week in practice. And when he wasn’t swimming, he was immersed in his studies which included advanced classes in European history and calculus.
On October 10, 2012, Patrick, then 17 years old, had just finished a series of laps doing the backstroke when he stood up and hit his head on the gutter of the pool. It was a hard knock and Patrick knew it, but he felt all right and went on with his workout.
Afterward, he told his coach who followed protocol for assessing concussion and admonished Patrick to be mindful of any symptoms that might develop. Patrick’s parents were also told what happened and advised that he take it easy that night and to keep an eye on him. Like many parents and athletic coaches today, they knew that concussion was a real possibility and required diligent observation.
“I was thinking about it a lot,” says Patrick, “but I thought I’d be fine.”
He wasn’t fine though. “That day we learned how ignorant we were about brain injuries and concussion,” says his mother Betsy.
Patrick tried taking it easy that night, but driven to excel in all he did, attempted to study for a test the next day. What usually came pretty easily was suddenly a struggle. The dining room lights bothered him and he was having trouble comprehending what he was reading.
“I couldn’t really focus and I think that was the first indicator something was wrong,” says Patrick. “That may have been the start of my symptoms looking back on it.”
Recognizing that Patrick wasn’t himself, Betsy and her husband Paul, urged Patrick to go to bed.
The next morning, Patrick slept in, which was uncharacteristic for this early riser. He went to school where he’d signed up to have his yearbook photo taken. The photographer’s flash really bothered him, Betsy says, another indicator something wasn’t right.
That same day, Patrick began experiencing bad headaches and dizziness. Betsy scheduled an appointment with the family pediatrician for the next day. Patrick, who as a high school athlete had been given an ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) evaluation to establish his cognitive baseline, was retested by his pediatrician.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It took me about an hour,” says Patrick, adding that he was completely wiped out at the end.
By now, other symptoms had surfaced. Betsy noted that Patrick’s speech was somewhat slower, and he was pale and clammy. The pediatrician determined that Patrick had suffered a concussion. He prescribed rest. No school. No mental stimulation.
He also recommended that Patrick see Kimberly Kuchinski, program director at the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Pediatric Unit in Bethlehem where she specializes in pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation.
“We’re very grateful we were referred to Dr. Kuchinski,” says Betsy.
Dr. Kuchinski met with Patrick for an evaluation on November 8, 2012. She confirmed the post-concussive syndrome diagnosis and in addition to medication, prescribed a treatment plan that took full advantage of all the resources and expertise in Good Shepherd’s Concussion Management Program. Patrick’s left eye wasn’t tracking properly, he was experiencing dizziness and he struggled with his memory and mental fatigue so he needed vision, vestibular and speech therapy.
“I brought my homework and learned memory techniques using my homework,” says Patrick. “That was amazing.”
“He had to learn how to learn,” adds Betsy.
Another helpful technique Patrick learned was how to rate his symptoms on a daily basis and adjust accordingly.
“That scale is really helpful,” says Patrick. “I can mentally gauge what activities make the symptoms worse. It’s an easy way for me to not push that far. You kind of have to plan out your days and weeks and definitely don’t want to push so hard that you set yourself back.”
Pacing and making adjustments in his school day remains an important part of Patrick’s recovery. Short breaks at home or sitting in his parents’ car resting or listening to the radio are incorporated into his day. And he still avoids eating lunch in the school cafeteria because loud noises bother him.
But Patrick has come a long way. He’s swimming again and competing with his teammates although he is still working up his stamina and has difficulty diving into the pool because he is prone to dizzy spells. “I’m basically relearning how to do it,” he says, “and pretty much everything I used to do.”
Although he’s no longer getting therapy, Patrick continues to benefit from visits and ongoing evaluation with Good Shepherd neuropsychologist, Luke Caccio, Ph.D.
Now 18 years old, Patrick has applied to several colleges where he hopes to continue swimming and is getting ready to graduate in June. Betsy has high praise for his teachers and the Emmaus High School administrators who have accommodated Patrick through this ordeal and made it possible for him to keep up with his school work.
“His teachers were amazing,” says Betsy.
Patrick’s concussion has brought with it many lessons not just for him, but the entire family.
“Paul and I grew as parents in learning how to let go,” says Betsy. “Patrick’s mantra is, ‘It is what it is,’ and I think Patrick’s in a better place because of it and we are as parents and as people. I think one of his sisters summed it up, ‘All I want is for Patrick to get better so he can smile again.’”
Patrick’s face breaks into a wide grin. “I’m going to get better as fast as I can,” he says. “It is what it is.”