What’s it like trying to surf following a brain trauma concussion ?
It was just that query that I found myself sifting with last week-long aboard the world’s largest passenger liner, the Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas. We were a party of nine aboard to celebrate our dearest surviving Grand-Mother of the family on the special occasion for her 90th birthday. At the aft end of this magnificent boat are two wave rider’s FlowRider that simulate surfing conditions. Imagine a waterfall consisting of 20 fire hoses strapped side-by-side along a line all gushing their water stream downwards except their falling velocity is edge blasting horizontally. Now step into this stream. Instantly your legs are flung skywards as you tumble head over buttock rolling over a small curve into the cushioning bumpers at the extremity of this water corral. It’s like being tackled by a professional football player as your head snaps backwards while your feet are spun from under you. This is a violent lesson for learning balance on the boogey surfer board. I loved every second of my Oasis experience no matter the toll on my ancient body.
I have always loved surfing. When I grew up, the Beach Boys rhythms promoted their unique sounds and sights to dream of freedom flying across the waves. I was hooked. But I never had the occasion nor the courage to pursue the surfer dude dream in my mind, until last week. I had brought along a 3/4 thin wet suit just to keep the water chill away. I would be spending wrinkle skin amounts of time in the horizontal water falls plus I wanted a little absorbing padding protection for all the falls I would be taking. I fell a lot last week. I felt like a kid though, but I remained exuberant throughout the body tumbling.
Concussions are all about balance, toward how this delicate sensing goes off. One of the classic tests if you have suffered a strong concussion is standing on one leg if you close your eyes it’s as if you are on a surfboard that has twisted away from under your feet to find yourself lost in your matrix of 3-dimensional space. The board is your connection to the gravity vector at the sweep of velocity churning on the lower curve of the rolling wave. Lose that board and you are trying to walk on water, which won’t last more than a few milliseconds. So you start swaying, tilting, rocking very fast, toes to heel before the balance equilibrium bursts. Your body gyrates rapidly side to side trying to compensate without finding the sweet spot of control. You feel entirely helpless as if you are a toddler trying to stand up for the first time.
The reason I wanted to learn to at least stand up on the wave rider was to re-experience the challenge of learning to find my body balance. Going through this learning experience I hoped would give me insights into how we try to cope following a concussion, when the balance is gone. Let me introduce you to a person who has suffered a concussion I will call him James. James recently taught me a lot of how our perceptions change following a concussion. I will be translating James post-concussion experience into my trying to surf to reveal some of the significant alterations following a concussion as perceived by that other person, James. As if were were both side by side riding on an imaginary wave
The advantage of learning to surf aboard the wave rider is that the instructor is right there in front of you as you wobble rock into the water blast at your feet while he holds your hands. Immediately you appreciate his grip onto your hands becoming an important link to your stability, at the level of a parents steadying hand support. “You’re much too tense, I can feel it in your hands,” he yells at you. Surfer dude images in the mind’s eye don’t match the reality to this out of control spastic behaviour my body is simply quivering in the challenge of it all. “Move more onto your back foot, stand up more, point up to the wave, keep your shoulders in line with the board,” again and again he screams instructions as I keep lifting the back foot, a major big error resulting into tumble twisting splaying staggering onto the horizontal jet spray. It’s hard to relax especially with such an eager audience on the grand-stands gasping and rollicking at your childish exuberance. ” I don’t care what they think, ” I say to myself. I’m having a blast loving every bruising second of it. After five try’s my progress is not worthy of any sort of surfer dude boasting. That’s it for day one.
Day two is called an open sea day. We were on our way from Ft-Lauderdale to a special, dedicated Royal Caribbean beach at Labadee, Haiti. There was a light rain falling.”Not much sun sports aboard to-day,” I said softly to myself as I made my way after breakfast to the FlowRider at the aft end of the Oasis ship. I didn’t know there was a special lesson going on just for those participants. I decided to stay to see what tips I could pick up. I stood nearby under cover of a bar canopy as their surfing lesson began. The previous day I had only grabbed the bare essentials of just standing getting up drilled into my head. I wanted to become a toddler capable of waddling along monkey style- hands in the air walking for the first time. I wanted desperately to feel that singular joy of supporting myself on my own.
During their lesson I matched from my vantage point all the particular detail the instructors were providing to their student surfers. I too practiced along with them on the side line without the water blast at my feet. I practised the positioning, placing your feet especially the weight bearing foot at the 20% distance from the end. My left foot was placed at exactly the 35% position at the front of the board. The board has it’s own curve to it. Keeping the right profile into the water jet provides the lift to balance your body upright. Bend at the knees, point with the left hand upwards like you see the first evening star. The back arm points down. Eventually you will learn that pointing up with the left arm causes your torso to rotate creating a turn. To compensate you bend over with the right arm to drag your hand in the water jet wave, which cause you to turn right. This motion I practised later in the quietness of our room imagining myself aboard that jet wave. I saw myself as smooth, deliberate yet delicate in my movements. I spent a few hours during the quiet drizzle rain riding my imaginary board. I started to feel the difference first in my knees. I could sense the water blast jarring against my feet but I was starting to cancel out all the rocking motion to just stand there. I was starting to believe that my first baby step was now possible.
The way to enter the wave blast at first is accurate foot placement on the board. Then you reach down crab style and rock up and down as the lead edge of the board slides into the water blast. Holding onto the instructors hands, you let go with your left hand as the board speeds under your feet against the flow. You have a self conversation along the lines of, “OK -just relax let that tenseness go, do not tighten your muscles. Pivot the knee, align the hips stand up align the shoulders,” becomes the inner voice you listen to. In the quiet of my room, I listen to my calm voice repeating over and over the mantra. The ship becomes my surf board, I ride the ship hearing the cascading waves outside our cabin door.
Day three is in anticipation of my lesson, my turn to walk the wave. The motions are much different from the previous time on the wave. I sensed the mental training in my body position. Then I wiped out. Both legs splay open as if water skiing, rolling into the wave burst and something has seriously ripped in a muscle on the upper-back right leg. Arriving at the back of the water coral, my right leg is extremely painful. “Great first attempt, and now one leg is really compromised,” I complain to myself. ” Do I chicken out?” comes briefly into my mind. ” No way mister- you’re here to stand, stop gripping,” disgusted at myself for thinking at whimping out, I opt to start stretching vigorously on my right leg. It really, really hurts. Slowly I stretching some length into it, finally I can stand and bend somewhat. I head back into the wave jet. My instructor is not sympathetic when I tell him about my leg. ” It won’t hurt when you relax your leg muscle, you are still much too tense, relax man,” he soothed to me in his wonderful Caribbean accent, drawing out the maaan note as if singing to me. It took another two tries but I wobbled onto the wave rush. Then it happened. I found the sweet spot on the wave. I was a child again, the joy streaming from my face. I was smooth, standing tall despite the water blast at my feet.
The joy of finding myself upright without that rocking wobble was the joy of years of dreaming on this moment. Water streamed at my feet and through my eyes. I had found the balance and it was so sweet.
If I had a concussion this is how I would perceive it on the wave according to the help of James. I would not notice I was bent to the side from my former self position. Only would this compensation be apparent to me if magically a huge mirror were to be attached to board would I notice how I was not in the right position. Let me repeat this to make my point. If I had a concussion my matrix sense of facing forward straddling the surf board would be off to the side as if my body had tele-transported Captain Kirk- Star Trek style into a different parallel position on the board. My brain calculating, trying to pick my new position form would calculate in error the necessary recorrections into my various body parts to achieve balance forming stability instructions. My mind in the fog would be overcome by the complexity of it all, falling like a toddler not yet experienced to stand alone.
That is what I learned on the FlowRider, that current neurologists have not yet acquired. how to query at the respect for the difference of perception of the body following a strong concussion that involves central balance loss. That is the lesson learning to stand aboard a surf board that James taught me. It is a huge lesson that must be shared if we are to make progress recognizing the specifics of the brain changes that are more than, “…just in your head and with time following the concussion you’ll improve,” which is the common medical response. We can do a lot better toward first recognizing the specific changes of the brain following a concussion. We can start to hope that the changes to the plastic brain with treatment are now a possibility. Like my first baby surfing steps, we can return the balance sensing acuity following a concussion. I am very convinced we can accomplish this. I very much want to be part of that rediscovery.