Concussed Campus: University life is more dangerous than you think

(Photo: Daniel Wesser)

(Photo: Daniel Wesser)

University students require healthy brains to cope with the heavy workload and intellectual challenges of university life.

Awareness of concussions in sports has increased in the past few years. However, concussions that happen in the university environment receive less attention, sometimes with consequences for students.

According to the Brain Injury Association of Nova Scotia, concussions can cause a wide range of physical and psychological effects, including headaches, nausea, light sensitivity, confusion, memory problems, mood changes, loss of muscle coordination, and fatigue.

The duration of symptoms varies from person to person. Some recover within days, but for others a full recovery can take months – hard to accommodate in a typical university semester.

Paisley Conrad, a third-year King’s student, suffered a concussion while preparing for a KTS play in the fall of last year. She was unable to do schoolwork for a large part of the semester.

“I was almost totally bedridden, aside from going to the doctor, for about three weeks,” she said. “After about a month I was able to start reading again, but I could only handle half an hour to 45 minutes at a time.”

Conrad ended up having to drop two out of her five courses. She was able to complete her other three courses successfully with support from the faculty at King’s and Dalhousie.

One of her professors extended a course for her, which allowed Conrad to finish it over the Christmas break.

Abigail Trevino, a first-year FYP student who suffered a concussion at the end of September, found that her professors were very willing to make accommodations for her.

“I talked to Susan Dodd, and said, ‘Look, I may or may not be coming back after a week, I’m going to take it day by day and see how I feel,’ and she was totally understanding of that.”

However, Conrad credited faculty awareness of concussions as the reason why her professors were sympathetic.

“I definitely think it was the fact that someone in the English department had had a concussion in recent memory, so my prof was able to take it incredibly seriously,” said Conrad.

At King’s and Dalhousie, requests for extensions are handled by individual professors, who evaluate each student’s case and review the relevant medical documentation.

“We would take a concussion very seriously,” said Terra Bruhm, King’s Assistant Registrar. “We do consider it to be a very valid medical reason for seeking assistance and we would be there for anyone who finds themselves with a concussion.”

However, because concussions are considered just like other injuries under the school’s extension policy, a lack of awareness of the unique effects of concussions – in particular, the need for extended recovery time – can still cause problems for students.

Bridget Irwin, a fourth-year Dalhousie student, received a concussion last September during a rugby game.

Irwin was denied permission to skip an exam in one of her classes, due to her continuing concussion symptoms.

“He didn’t maybe think through exactly what this concussion meant, or maybe it was a lack of awareness of the effects of concussions, so there were several variables I wasn’t sure about,” she said.

Academics aside, concussions can create financial costs for students as well. Conrad, who dropped two of her five courses, experienced a financial setback as a result.  

“I got my concussion maybe a day or two after the add/drop date,” she said, “so I wasn’t able to get all of the money back.”

Conrad, who relies on scholarships and income from part-time jobs to cover the costs of her studies, also has residual symptoms from the concussion. These require treatments she can’t afford.

“I do need to go to physiotherapy, my neck is still in a lot of pain,” she said. “But I can’t afford to get regular appointments with physiotherapy or a chiropractor or massage. You have to go regularly to see results, and the medical plan doesn’t cover massage.”

Irwin did not drop any courses to avoid financial problems. She suffered an increase in the intensity of her concussion symptoms as a result, which delayed her recovery.

“I think if I had really taken the doctor’s advice, not necessarily seriously, but realized that I needed to put self-care first, rather than trying to just keep going and trying to do all the things that I wanted to do, then it would have played out differently,” said Irwin.

Without adequate rest, concussion symptoms can become much more severe. With this and financial costs in mind, it’s clear that the seriousness of concussions should no longer be taken lightly by students or faculty.

This story is part one of a series of stories related to concussions on campus.