Many of you will have read our article on the potential effecs of concussion ( In fact we know 12,000 of you have so far ).
There was one contributor who featured in that article who is currently living, and battling with the results of serious concussion. Lorraine Truong was brave enough to write us a full account of her life as it is now. Please read this carefully and with empathetic care – This took immense bravery to write.
We’d also ask you to note this down – your head is not worth risking when it comes to cumulative blows , no matter how big or small they may seem.
I should probably start with a short introduction, as many people might have no idea who I actually am. My name is Lorraine Truong and I was born in 1990 in Switzerland. I was lucky to grow up in a family of skiers. I discovered mountain biking at 12, as a summer replacement of skiing. I just felt in love. I wanted to focus on downhill, but as my parents were against it, I had to turn to XC. Even though I liked that discipline and enjoyed myself for almost 10 years, even grabbing a national title in the process, what I enjoyed most was going downhill and playing with my bike.
I spent a lot of time testing my hardtail down the local DH track or trying to climb big rocks, benches or woodpiles, I was training each week with my BMX club, and even tried a few Enduro races. I discovered that I loved riding, whatever the bike – BMX, Enduro, trial or XC. So after 2012 season, and for different reasons, I decided to switch to Enduro and Downhill, racing EWS and Swiss/European downhill cup. At the same time, I studied in the Swiss Institute of Technology, getting my Master degree as a mechanical and material sciences engineer. Then in 2015 I signed a pro rider contract with the BMC Factory Trailcrew, along with a part time job as a technology engineer in their R&D team.
All that came to an abrupt end the 19th of July 2015, at EWS in Samoëns. I can’t tell you exactly what happened. It was in the first stage of the 2nd day, and I think I went over the bars when my front wheel hit a hole or something. I don’t remember it really, but think I remember going forwards and thinking “it’s gonna be ok”. My memories of the rest of the day are really vague. I think, as if it was in a dream, that I remember climbing to the next (and last) stage with Pauline Dieffenthaler. Then I have a memory of being in the last stage, stopped, with tape all around and thinking: “Where I am? What I am doing?” Weeks later I saw that I gave an interview after my crash, but I have no recollection of it. So in short, I finished the race, having no idea how I did it. And even grabbed an 8th spot at the end.
My memories came back a bit after the race, I am laying in my car with a horrible headache.. A medic came to check on me and said that if things get worse I should go to the hospital. But I was just thinking: “Don’t go the hospital, it’s gonna be a mess. You’ve been through that before and it was ok, it’s just a little hit on your head. Keep it quiet.” So I went back to the team apartment, and had the first in a long series of sleepless nights.
The day after the race, I was back home. I was supposed to leave for the American rounds five days later. So in my mind I would take 1-‐2 days to recover, then spend a bit of time on my DH bike to prepare for Crankworx and all would be fine. But soon I had to face it wasn’t fine at all.
The headache was crazy, I needed to vomit all the time, light and noises were driving me mad, I was struggling to speak, my body wouldn’t respond, each tiny task was a huge effort, my mind was so cloudy.. something was wrong. So I decided to see my sport doctor. As the doctor of a Swiss A-‐league ice hockey team, he’s used to concussions. I thought I was going there just to check and to make sure I would do the good things to prepare my trip to the US and the upcoming races. But after a short examination, his decision was clear: I was going nowhere. My brain needed rest and time to heal. What I was facing was serious, really serious, even more considering my history of TBI.
Effectively, in the past 3 years I had 6 of what I would call “official concussions” and even a more severe TBI. I call an official concussion a shock to the head where I either lost consciousness, or had really noticeable symptoms, that would prevent me to ride my bike, at least for a few hours. So that’s not counting the unofficial ones, those I can’t even really count where you crash, get dizzy, a bit blurry or a bit of your mind but you just keep riding. To that should probably be added at least 2 further “official ones” from when I was racing XC as a junior and would be knocked off while trying to overtake in some technical descents. But with all those TBI, the only times I took some time to rest was when I had another injury, like broken ribs or hand.
I had no idea I was slowly damaging my brain, making it more and more sensitive to further injuries. Many times I would keep riding and racing with headache,chronic tiredness or slower reflexes. But I couldn’t see why something that was just “in my head” should stop me. I could ride, so wouldn’t stop doing it. By pushing further, trying harder, those sensations had to disappear. It worked.. until I stopped working.
In the past months, I’ve often asked myself why. Why would I keep injuring my head and brain? Why didn’t I break my collarbone or shoulder, but get concussed? I don’t have a definite answer. A bit of bad luck maybe, like when my BMX frame broke when landing a jump and sent me head first in the next double. Probably also my riding style – I love to be high on my bike and to play with the terrain – combined with my tiny size – such that my bike is quite heavy relatively to my weight and force – and my love for risks. And definitely because the more you hit your head without giving your brain time to heal, the more sensitive it becomes.
So after that first appointment with my sport doc, the long journey of brain injury started. At first, the order was to rest my brain completely. That means lying in a dark and silent room. I was allowed a bit of walking, as long as it didn’t increase the symptoms. So most of the time, going to the toilet or eating was already too much, and I would just lie down. For weeks. In my mind, it still wasn’t serious. I needed a bit of rest and I would be back to racing in no time.
That was almost a year ago.
Since the crash, I haven’t had a day without headache. Some days the dark room is still the only way I have to be able to live with it. I have nausea most of the time, and stopped vomiting regularly only a few weeks ago. It took me months to be able to get real sleep, such that now I would go from days when I sleep 18 hours, to days where finding the sleep is impossible and I have to restrain myself from banging my head on the wall because the pain and bad sensations are just too intense. It is like having billions of electrically charged balls, or lighted flies, moving randomly in your head. My mind is not empty; it’s full of a useless, continuous agitation. Constant buzzing and ringing in my ears and moving light spots in my eyes increase this sensation.
Each time my mind is clearer, it feels surprising and incredible because I’ve got used to feeling slow and cloudy. I have vertigo and dizziness, so walking and standing is not natural anymore. Talking and listening is an effort. I often stutter when I get tired or forget the names of things or of people, even my best friends or neighbour. You can imagine how embarrassing it is sometimes. I have weaknesses, loss of control and of proprioception and cramps in my right arm and leg. I have periods when my attention and memory are really poor. And if I get really tired, I can black out for not other reason than standing up or having a shower. Often I would be sitting or standing somewhere and kind of wake up, thinking “what I am doing?”. And I am tired… so tired…
I probably forget many other symptoms and effects of my injured brain. Some go for a while, others appear. For instance, I’ve lately noticed that the left side of my mouth is often wounded, probably because I don’t control it very well and so I bite it when I eat. Or that I can’t read the time on a clock with hands. In general, my brain is unable to cope with too much information or for too long. For instance, going shopping is almost impossible as the inputs are too many and too intense. It means that riding a bike is a real challenge. I now can do it for about 2minutes on the flat. It might seem ridiculous, but a month ago 30 seconds was too much. I get dizzy, nauseous, my vision gets blurry and I feel lost.. The outside world, with its noises, engines, motions and multiples stimulus has become a monster.
You can also imagine that the psychological effect of this injury is big. Going from being a junior engineer, who used to be able to do her mathematical analysis homework while following a class of quantum mechanics, to a person who struggles to write this text, having to look at it with a massive font size to be able to read it and have to take breaks every 10 minutes or so, is a massive change in my life and also in my self esteem.
I was a young rider appreciated for her riding style and with a bright career ahead; now I am a woman who walks with a stick. It’s hard to hold on. Most of the time I feel very ashamed of myself. Despite all I’ve learnt and am still learning about brain injury, I still have that inside voice that tells me it’s nothing. That if I was stronger I could de more rehab and get better faster. I’ve only hit my head a bit! But how to fight what your own central computer can’t achieve?
This feeling of not doing well enough in the situation is unfortunately often increased by the lack of knowledge within the medical world. Even neurologists sometimes don’t know about the possible effects of concussion and even less about multiples TBIs. So you end up with common ideas such as it’s not serious, you should be all right or it can’t get worse. After that it is hard to stick up for yourself when you see that some symptoms are getting worse or appearing and you definitely don’t feel alright at all.
I often feel crazy and so desperate that the only way I see to make all those symptoms stop is not a way where I am alive. Luckily, my
sport doc has always backed me up, is kind and compassionate and allows me to take my time and to rest as much as I can. I also sometimes read or meet someone who’s been through the same kind of journey or a doctor who actually understands, reminding me that I am not alone and that all this is not my fault, but that I am wounded.
Despite all that, my prognosis is still good. I am young, with a good level of education and an important ability to learn. So my brain should get better. I even have the right to keep dreaming of riding and even racing again. But the journey is going to be long and often I feel so desperate that it’s hard to keep having faith in my future.
Lorraine Truong, July 2016
Images: Ian Linton and Lorraine Truong