CRYSTAL LAKE – Kelsey Schiel can’t play basketball anymore. Because she can’t play, she won’t watch. The game she loved is gone.
A sixth concussion finally ended Schiel’s high school career before she got to play her senior season at Crystal Lake South.
A seventh cut her comeback at McHenry County College short. Her mom won’t forget – can’t forget – that call.
An eighth just freaked everyone out even more. She wasn’t even playing basketball. She was being pulled in an inflatable raft by a boat, flipped off and bumped heads with a friend.
The concussions have taken a toll. The uncertain future might be worse.
“People think concussion, headache, you’re all better,” said Sue Schiel, Kelsey’s mom.
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Schiel, now 24, barely noticed her first concussion.
She hit her head on the floor during a basketball game in her sophomore year of high school and went back in the game not long after. It wasn’t until the next night, after Schiel had taken an elbow to the middle of her head during practice, that the consequences of two concussions in two days surfaced.
She was nauseated and vomiting, and her head pounded. Emergency room doctors told her she was experiencing the intensified effects of back-to-back concussions.
Schiel returned to action two weeks later.
Before doctors finally insisted that she stop playing midway through her junior year, Schiel suffered six concussions in all, never sitting out more than two weeks. Twice, she was concussed two times in the same week.
The rest of her junior year and senior year were filled with migraine headaches, memory issues, trouble sleeping and corresponding complications with completing schoolwork. Her left eye no longer tracked correctly, which intensified the headaches.
“When you tell people you can’t play, the coaches are like OK, I kind of get it. But the students, they don’t get it,” Schiel said. “That was the hard part.”
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Concussions have become a much bigger part of the national dialogue in recent years, but the majority of the discussion has centered on high-contact sports – namely football.
Researchers at Boston University, studying the brains of deceased football players, have found that repeated trauma to the head can cause serious long-term health issues such as memory loss, impaired judgment, depression and progressive dementia.
But it’s unknown how many concussions it takes, or whether people such as Schiel are at risk as opposed to the concussions that NFL players and hockey players suffer. “It’s really hard not knowing,” Sue Schiel said.
Dr. Katherine Carroll, a neurologist at Northwestern Neurology Associates in Chicago whose worked with Kelsey Schiel for three years, said she believes Schiel’s health will only improve from here. But she recognizes that more could have been done to prevent the postconcussion syndrome that Schiel experiences to this day.
“People didn’t have the knowledge and expertise to deal with them at the time,” Carroll said. “That, as well as the fact she’s had so many, has contributed to her long-lasting issues.”
Sue Schiel likes the idea of baseline testing, which is when doctors test individuals’ memory and motor skills preseason to set a standard that the player must achieve to be cleared to play after a concussion. She said she’d like to see baseline testing in every sport.
Carroll said the majority of her concussion patients come from football and boxing, but that people around athletics need to know concussions can happen in sports not traditionally associated with them.
Sue Schiel agrees. “It’s not just football. It’s not just the boys,” she said.
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Kelsey Schiel couldn’t keep herself from playing basketball in college. Once her symptoms cleared up and doctors told her it was OK, she decided to give it a go. Her parents were not thrilled with the idea.
“I’ve played basketball since I was 5,” Schiel said. “It’s almost like who you are at that point. You’re a basketball player.”
Schiel, a 5-foot-5 shooting guard, felt her aggressive nature coming back quickly when she got back onto the court.
She was at an away game when she dove for a loose ball and caught what she remembers as either a knee or an elbow to the head, which then caused her head to hit the floor. She did not lose consciousness – she has only once from a concussion.
Sue Schiel got the call from a trainer and met the team bus at MCC. She took her daughter straight to the emergency room, where she was in for another night of nausea and vomiting and pounding headaches. Sue remembers pleading with Kelsey to give up basketball for good.
“You’re like, ‘Please, Kelsey,’ ” her mother said. “And at that point, the doctors even told her, if you get another one before your brain heals, you are risking your life.”
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Kelsey Schiel graduated from MCC in 2008, and from Judson University in Elgin in 2011.
Kinesiology and physiology – classes with a high memorization load – were a particular challenge.
“It’s college,” Sue Schiel remembered telling her daughter. “The real world isn’t like this. We just have to get you through this.”
Kelsey Schiel made it through. She hasn’t had a concussion for a couple of years, and her symptoms continue to lessen as her brain heals.
She landed a job at St. Joseph Elementary School in Elgin. She teaches physical education.
“I like teaching gym,” she said. “We’re doing basketball right now.”