Angela Schell of White Haven didn’t know what hit her as she worked the night shift at a Hazleton-area warehouse on March 6, 2016.
“All I remember is someone saying ‘Watch out!’” she says. “Then nothing until I found myself on my feet with co-workers around me.” She had blacked out as a 6-foot-high stack of heavy boxes toppled onto her. “I was on the floor covered in boxes, and co-workers helped me to my feet, but I don’t remember any of that,” Schell says.
She returned to work that night but on subsequent nights sometimes had to go home because she had trouble doing her job. Not only did her neck and back hurt, but she often had headaches, felt dizzy, seemed off balance, had eye pain and experienced blurry vision. Eventually she couldn’t work.
After several months of inconclusive care, Schell was referred to the Concussion and Head Trauma Program at Lehigh Valley Health Network–One City Center in Allentown. There, certified registered nurse practitioners determined that Schell had suffered a concussion. They referred her to the newly opened concussion program at the Health & Wellness Center at Hazleton. “Having concussion care available at Hazleton is a godsend,” Schell says. “Since you’re there three or four hours twice a week, it’s much more convenient.”
Easily dismissed problem
“It’s important to treat a concussion and allow the brain to heal,” says Catherine Gallagher, director of Outpatient Rehabilitation and Support Services at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Hazleton and the Health & Wellness Center. “If you’ve had one concussion, you’re more vulnerable to another.” Therapists trained in treating concussions now offer comprehensive services at a variety of LVHN locations, including the Health Center at Fogelsville and Lehigh Valley Hospital–S. Jackson Street in Pottsville.
“‘Concussion’ is not my favorite term because people think, ‘Oh, it’s just a concussion – I’ll bounce back quickly,’” says speech therapist Jennifer Hoats, with the Health & Wellness Center. “It’s actually a mild traumatic brain injury.” Blunt force can damage the brain by causing it to move inside the head and contact the skull. “Some people bounce back in 24 to 48 hours,” Hoats says. “But some go months and still have symptoms.”
Concussions often arise from sports injuries, especially in spring and fall when school athletics ramp up. Other causes include car accidents, falls and work-related injuries such as Schell’s. “I didn’t know how bad I was until I started going to therapy in July,” Schell says. “I had a hard time comprehending things and focusing, and really couldn’t talk in a complete sentence.”
Treatments retrain the brain to function normally and address everyday situations that may be difficult after a concussion, says physical therapist Ashley Schartzer, with the Health & Wellness Center. “We use therapies to help you walk on stairs; shower with your eyes closed; navigate an unlit room; or walk while turning your head to look at objects, such as at the grocery store,” she says.
“Physical therapy uses specialized balance therapy equipment available at only a few locations in northeast Pennsylvania,” says physical therapist Ashley Schartzer. The team assesses balance issues caused by damage to the somatosensory system (nerves that help you balance using touch, pressure, pain, heat, and sense of position and movement), vestibular system (inner ear balance) and vision. Exercises are tailored to retrain the brain to function in everyday situations without causing dizziness, headache or other concussion-related symptoms.
Occupational therapy focuses on eye movement, multitasking and hand-eye coordination using imaging tools including computers, wall projections and 3-D systems. “We work to get you functioning in daily life as independently and free of deficits as possible,” says occupational therapist Georgette Herring. “Therapists work in the same area at the Health & Wellness Center, and we constantly check with each other about each patient’s progress.”
Speech therapy works on cognitive functions like attention and memory. “It’s like weightlifting for the brain,” says speech therapist Jennifer Hoats. “We keep making tasks a little harder to make the brain get stronger.” Therapists cater tasks to patient interests, relating activities to sports, hobbies or their job duties.