Natasha Zouves: The truth about concussion recovery

I am so grateful to be healthy again after recovering from a serious concussion. While I am eager to put this chapter behind me and return to doing the things I love, I feel it's important to share this period of my life, even in all of its dark, blunt unpleasantness. Traumatic brain injury is a serious issue and one that unfortunately affects so many people. I am hopeful that, by opening up about the details of my injury and recovery, I'm able to shed some light and awareness and let others know they're not alone.

The Injury

I'm by nature a pretty private person, so I feel extremely vulnerable describing exactly what this experience was like. Like many life-altering things, this injury came out of the blue. Several months ago, on a Friday like any other, we had finished the newscast when someone's metal can of hair product exploded, coating the ground with a viscous, extremely slick substance. Sometime later, I went to charge my wireless microphone when, despite my rubber-soled shoes, both of my legs went out from under me and I fell backwards - hard - hitting the back of my head on the shiny concrete of the studio floor.

I expected to be sore, but I truly had no concept of what was to come. 24 hours later, I couldn't handle any light, I couldn't stop throwing up and I was asking the same questions over and over again. At the ER, I was diagnosed with a serious concussion.

The Recovery

The recovery process was incredibly challenging. I was severely photophobic and nauseated. I had splitting headaches as though an ice pick were lodged in my head, that medication couldn't seem to touch -- all I could do was wait for hours in the dark praying it would stop, every day. As is common with traumatic brain injury, I lost the ability to taste and smell. Any food that once brought me comfort tasted like cotton in my mouth; every smell that evoked a precious memory, erased. I wasn't sure if I'd ever be ok again.

All of this was hard to conceptualize and, frankly, very frightening. My brain went in circles trying to make sense of it all, constantly searching for a narrative or a why. Just weeks before the fall, I had been honored with two Emmy Awards and had one of those moments of exquisite, piercing, pure joy that I hope will always be fixed in my memory - standing on stage, looking at my parents with tears glistening in their eyes, thanking them for all of their support and love, for shaping me as a person and as a journalist. Then, suddenly, after this injury I had to move back in with my parents. I felt I had let them down. This wasn't supposed to happen, and this new reality felt entirely foreign to me. At times, I felt trapped inside of a brain and a life I no longer recognized.

It's been a long road involving a lot of treatment and re-training - but with time and the help of a truly amazing team of doctors, I'm grateful to report that I'm doing so much better. I grew up in the Bay Area and my parents watched ABC7 when I was little, so this has always been so much more than just a job to me. I am cleared and absolutely overjoyed to be back.

The Lessons

I've grown a lot through this process and am still extracting lessons. Here are a few of my takeaways:

1) Although this time was very isolating, I came to find out that concussions affect many more people than I had initially thought. 1 in 4 Americans report having had a concussion, and almost half of all emergency room visits for traumatic brain injury are due to a fall. Concussions are something I only peripherally knew about in the context of football and other sports; I had no idea how many laypeople are affected by them and how common and debilitating post-concussion syndrome can be. This is serious. One article about concussion recovery in particular really helped me through the process -- this stunningly honest account describing Giants outfielder Mac Williamson's experience.

2) I'm emerging from this experience with a new appreciation for how delicate, complex and precious our brains are - we often move around this world as if we're invincible but, in truth, we are incredibly fragile. One of the neurologists treating my case explained that our brains are like "three pounds of tofu suspended in liquid," extremely soft and vulnerable. It's imperative that we take care of our brains and our health.

3) I am acutely aware of the fact that everyone is dealing with their own invisible burdens and fighting their own unseen battles. Many times these things are not readily apparent, but that doesn't make them any less real. I hold deep compassion in my heart for everyone who is going through something. I get it, I feel it, and I am sending you strength.

Most of all

I am filled with gratitude and I want to say an enormous thank you to the viewers. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of posts, emails, comments, DMs and messages, sharing your thoughts and letting me know I was in your family's prayers - a constant and truly humbling outpouring of support that kept me going throughout my entire recovery. So many of you shared that you were familiar with concussion and traumatic brain injury, that it had impacted your family, daughter or son, your parent or friend. I leaned on you constantly and felt your love every day like honey on my heart.

I'm so happy to be with this amazing team at ABC7 again. They do such an exceptional job every day, both in front of and behind the camera. And most of all, I'm excited to join you again. I'm here for you the same way you've been here for me. Reach out and let me know how you're doing -- and remember, whatever you're going through, you're not alone.
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