The Long Fight Back

Eric Kosalko remembers walking up to a clerk in a convenience store one day when suddenly, he couldn’t talk. “I tried to tell her I wanted gas and couldn’t get the words out,” says Eric. “The people in line looked at me as if I was drunk.”

Eric wasn’t drunk. He was experiencing fallout from a lifetime of concussions. Growing up, Eric was the kid who loved sports and couldn’t get enough. Athletic all his life, Eric wrestled, played soccer, ran crosscountry, and was a lifeguard for 28 years. “My first injury was when I was five or six years old and an older kid kicked a soccer ball hitting me in the head,” says Eric. “I was knocked unconscious.”

In middle school and high school, Eric sustained two more concussions in gymnastics. Fifteen years ago, he had another concussion when he was in a rollover car accident. More recently, Eric had five concussions in three months, a result of his work as a high school physical education teacher. “I was the poster boy for concussions,” says Eric. “Each injury compounded the next.”

Remarkably, Eric experienced few symptoms from the concussions and life went on as usual. He was teaching full time and working on a master’s in education at Wilkes University. It was this last series of concussions though that tipped the scales for the 49-year-old Emmaus resident. He started forgetting things. Then other symptoms emerged.  “When I got injured at school, my vision and speech got funny and the migraines came back,” says Eric. “It’s like looking through a thin sheet of water. I lose my center vision.”

With his vision becoming more impaired, everyday activities became difficult and embarrassing. “Do you know what it’s like to go to the grocery store, reach for a can and pull all the cans off the shelf?” he says. “Or go to speak and your speech is all slurred?”

Eric’s balance also was affected. The first time it happened he was walking in his backyard on a hot July day. “I wobbled and I thought that maybe I was dehydrated,” he says. His poor balance was becoming apparent at school too, when he walked down the hall, leading some people to wonder if he had been drinking.

Unable to keep up the demands of his job, Eric took a leave of absence and sought treatment. He went to several concussion specialists, but no one offered relief. One doctor told Eric his teaching career was over. “He said, ‘You’re going to be disabled. You’re never going back to teaching,’” says Eric.

Despair and desperation highjacked Eric’s life. “When you go to so many places and no one gives you an answer, I prayed for an aneurysm every night,” says Eric.

Just when Eric had given up, he was referred to Good Shepherd’s Concussion Management Program. He was evaluated and began vision therapy with Jenna Sopp, an occupational therapist, who designed a therapeutic program to help resolve difficulties with Eric’s central and peripheral vision.

“Eric was looking for hope and just wanted to get back to his normal self,” says Jenna. “He was tired of health care providers pushing aside his symptoms and limitations, and he was running out of options.”

Afflicted by migraines and vision deficits, often triggered by bright lights and noise, Eric wanted his life back. He wanted to walk down the street without people looking at him as though he was intoxicated. He wanted to go in to a store and not have the lights trigger a blinding headache. And, as the father of an eight-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, Eric wanted to participate fully in his children’s activities. Ultimately Eric wanted to get back to teaching.

A collaborative team approach including physical therapy was developed to address Eric’s multiple deficits. Steve Vandenberg, a physical therapist, worked closely with Jenna. Together, Steve and Jenna focused on challenging how Eric’s senses worked together.

They tested his balance by changing the surface he stood on during therapy and challenged his auditory system by playing recorded noises as he was trying to concentrate on a task. “Putting Eric in real world situations really helped him to mimic what he encountered day to day,” says Steve. “Eric responded well to ‘habituation’ type activities where exposure to provoking stimuli over and over built his tolerance and success with those activities.”

Finally Eric had found health care professionals who understood what he was going through and worked with him to overcome the problems that had derailed his life. “Steve and Jenna were incredible,” says Eric.

“I wasn’t a cookie cutter case. They tailored the therapy to the symptoms and because of that, there was a dramatic improvement. They changed my life.”

Dr. Deborah Lehr, a neuro-optometrist who heads the vision program, also took an interest in Erics case and used her expertise in the area of behavioral optometry to help Eric achieve his goals.  “Dr. Lehr was like no other doctor I worked with,” says Eric. “She followed me around for two sessions. If she couldn’t figure out what was wrong, she would look for the answer. So many doctors won’t do that.”

Throughout his therapy, Eric’s drive to succeed prevailed. “Eric put his faith in the therapy staff and their prescribed treatment,” says Jenna. “He was willing to do whatever it took to get better. He always arrived and left therapy with a smile on his face.”

In time, Eric progressed enough to be discharged. He returns for periodic re-evaluations and is close to Steve and Jenna who admire his big heart and giving spirit. Eric is quick to credit them with his success. “I’m a product of the people around me,” he says. “Steve and Jenna are a part of me because I wouldn’t be here without them.”

After two years of being out of work, Eric returned to teaching in 2016,  this time at a new school, Shawnee Elementary in Easton, where his upbeat spirit has endeared him to his colleagues and young students who range from kindergarten to fifth grade.

Eric’s experience with a brain injury has given him new insight in to what it is like to live with a disability. One little boy in a wheelchair has touched Eric’s heart. “We did cross-country at the beginning of the year,” says Eric, “and I looked at the other teacher and said, ‘I’m taking him on the course.’ We went around twice. That little boy was so excited. He was screaming, go, go, go! The other kids were right behind him and encouraging him. In that class he was a normal kid. He was able to do whatever anybody else did.”

Eric has resumed outings with his fellow WWII military vehicle collectors, and family activities. He greets every day with renewed gratitude, humility and a passion to pay it forward. These values he passes on to his children, who he brought in to decorate the therapy gym two Christmases ago when his symptoms were finally under control. “Good Shepherd saved me,” says Eric. “I fought my way back and now it’s my turn to give back. I don’t think of myself as special, but if I can give back any way I can, I will. Miracles happen.”

 

Watch Eric share his success story on

Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network’s YouTube channel.