Confused and 'very alone': Concussion survivor calls for change to N.W.T. healthcare

A woman who sustained a concussion in Yellowknife last year is using her story to advocate for improvements to the territory’s healthcare system.

Kirsten Short says navigating the system was lonely and challenging

Kirsten Short’s life changed on Feb.19, 2017 when at a friend’s house, she fainted and the fall left her with a split chin and a concussion. (Submitted by Kirsten Short)

Kirsten Short's life changed on Feb. 19, 2017 when she fainted at a friend's house, leaving her with a split chin and, unbeknownst to her at the time, a concussion.

Short said she was given stitches and discharged from the Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife without being advised to look for the signs of a concussion.

At the time, Short said she didn't think the fall was too serious, describing it as "the worst hangover I've ever had in my entire life."

But looking back, Short said she was extremely anxious and confused, and is now questioning why the hospital didn't ask her more questions.

"They didn't really appreciate ... the fact that I had been knocked out," said Short, who's an advisor at a local accounting firm.

Without knowing the extent of her injuries, Short flew to Wekweeti, N.W.T., the following day to teach a weeklong course. There her headache got progressively worse and she wasn't able to concentrate, so she flew back to Yellowknife early.

'It was probably one of the hardest months of my life,' says Short about dealing with her concussion. (Submitted by Kirsten Short)

When she went back to the emergency room, Short said the doctor told her they underestimated how hard she hit her head. She was diagnosed with a concussion and was told to rest.

But Short said her symptoms persisted — she was confused and even had trouble standing.

Because she was new to the territory, Short was told she couldn't get a family doctor until May, so she kept visiting clinic doctors.

For a month, she said she was given medical notes and told to keep resting in a dark room.

"It was probably one of the hardest months of my life," Short said. "There was just a lot of tears and a lot of pain and a lot of frustration."

Frustrated, Short relocated on medical leave to her hometown of Vancouver to stay with her parents.

There, she said specialists told her she had been given inaccurate medical advice.

A spokesperson for the territorial health authority said they couldn't comment on specific patients' medical cases. CBC asked for the spokesperson to provide a comment on general concussion treatment protocol, but didn't receive one by Wednesday afternoon. 

Diagnose early, says doctor

Dr. Paul van Donkelaar, a professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, has been researching concussions for the past 15 years.

Van Donkelaar said it's important for concussions to get diagnosed early on so people can receive treatment and advice. But he said diagnosis can be difficult because symptoms can wax and wane and are similar to other injuries and illnesses.

Concussion patients should have complete physical and mental rest within the first few days after an injury, van Donkelaar said, but after more than a few days, recent research has shown complete rest can actually make concussion symptoms worse.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in December 2016, for example, found that among youth aged five to 18 years with an acute concussion, physical activity within a week was associated with reduced risk of persistent post-concussive symptoms at 28 days.

Dr. Paul van Donkelaar is a professor with the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia Okanagan and has been researching concussions for the past 15 years. (Submitted by Paul Van Donkelaar)

In cases like Short's, where the focus may be on another injury like a split chin, van Donkelaar said a bit more time may be needed to ask questions about potential concussion symptoms.

Short is getting ongoing treatment in Vancouver, involving multiple specialists including a psychologist, physiotherapist and kinesiologist. More than 13 months later, she still struggles with post-concussion symptoms including chronic headaches, migraines and blurred vision.

Short said she doesn't blame any of the medical professionals she saw in Yellowknife but her experience has sparked a passion to advocate for improvements with how the territory handles cases where someone may have a concussion or brain injury.

Though her family support system was enough to help her get through that time, she wants to make sure things are better for others. 

"I was very alone in navigating the system myself when I was up there, and it's so difficult when you have a brain injury to do anything that requires thinking."

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