Brain Injury Recovery
Patient Stories | Erika Vonderheide

Lacrosse Player Returns to the Field, Fully Recovered from Traumatic Brain Injury

High School Athlete Learns Importance of Managing Concussions, Receives Expert Treatment at our Brain Health and Wellness Center

During a high school lacrosse match two summers ago, Erika Vonderheide suffered a concussion. She rested and recovered, but four months later, worried something might be wrong.

Always an A or B student, Erika’s grades had begun dropping throughout the fall semester of her sophomore year. She was receiving more Cs and Ds, and even a few Fs. 

“Which is not like me at all,” explained Erika. “I’ve had concussions before. But I didn’t realize the lasting impact that [the July 2020 injury] had on me – the residual impact.”

Her earlier concussions occurred before the 7th and 9th grades. But unlike those injuries, this concussion left lingering effects, including memory and concentration problems, months later. These effects prompted her mom, Felicia, to discuss the symptoms with their family pediatrician and get a referral to Cincinnati Children’s. 

Soon afterward, Erika and her family met with Brad Kurowski, MD, MS, a specialist in concussions and acquired brain injuries. Kurowski serves as co-director of our Brain Health and Wellness Center.

Kurowski and the Cincinnati Children’s team discussed treatment options and tailored their approach to meet Erika’s specific goals. She wanted to improve her grades and concentration, and return to the lacrosse field with the same confidence and aggressiveness she had before her injury. 

“Our team provides a unique approach,” said Kurowski. “The Brain Health and Wellness [Center] focuses on providing whole-person care and assessing the patient from multiple perspectives.” 

Erika’s treatment ranged from medications and behavioral health and eye interventions to therapy referrals. She met with specialists for pain management, trigger point injections and speech therapy. And she received school-based help to improve her grades. 

“I didn’t know how comprehensive it could be until this experience with [Cincinnati] Children’s,” said Felicia.

Comprehensive Care Leads to Better Recognition of Warning Signs

During this time, Erika and her parents learned how to look for possible underlying signs that something might be wrong following a brain injury. In Erika’s case, doctors made a connection between her neck and eye muscles and how they affected her brain and her ability to concentrate following the injury. 

“During our first evaluation with Erika, we were able to identify that neck issues and ocular motor skills (brain-eye coordination) were affected,” said Kurowski. “Once we identified these significant issues, we were able to link her to the most effective treatments that would accelerate her recovery.”

Finding that connection between Erika’s brain and her eyes was crucial, said Felicia. 

“If an injury impacts your vision, where you can’t see things as clearly, it affects your attention span. If you can’t focus, whether vision- or attention-related, you don’t comprehend. You don’t retain information and won’t perform well academically.”

Erika made great progress in meeting her functional goals and said she learned a lot during her recovery. As a result, she has improved her grades in the classroom and performance on the lacrosse field.   

“I feel like I’m back to my old self and even better as a [lacrosse] player,” she said.

Her mom agrees.

“Erika has the confidence and the self-esteem that she can do it and be even better,” said Felicia. 

Erika’s Reminder to Injured Athletes: You Are Not Alone

Mother and daughter both agree it’s important for athletes of all ages never to attempt to hide their injuries but instead talk openly with parents, coaches and teammates.

“I think it’s a very easy thing to fall into a mindset of you are alone, and you are the only one going through this, but that’s not the case,” said Erika. 

Thankfully, Erika had many people in her corner during the recovery process, including her family, doctors, care team, therapists and a school services specialist. In particular, though, she recalls the connection formed with physical therapist Anne Lennon. Their time together has Erika thinking about a future career in physical therapy (PT). 

Lennon said Erika was a great patient to work with, citing their clinic work as well as Erika’s dedication to performing independent home exercises.   

“I think that it’s important to establish a great rapport with kids and teenagers, especially those struggling after a concussion or mild traumatic brain injury,” said Lennon. “I want each person and their family to feel comfortable.”

“With Erika, coming to PT seemed to be a good outlet for her. She was able to talk, smile and laugh freely.” 

And Erika continues to smile and laugh as a junior at Mount Notre Dame High School in Cincinnati. Her grades have rebounded, and she returned to the lacrosse field, thriving in her role as offensive attacker for both her lacrosse teams. She plays the sport year-round – with her high school team in the winter and spring (main season) and her club team during fall and summer. 

“I love the competition,” said Erika when attempting to describe what she likes so much about lacrosse. It’s a sport her entire family loves, and which she began playing in the third grade. “People don’t really think the girls’ game is that physical, but it is – especially at the attacking end of it.”

Erika accepts that with the physical nature of the game comes the potential for injury – ranging from bruises and muscle aches to on-field collisions that can sometimes result in concussions. 

And while she knows the “rough and tumble nature” of the game won’t change, Erika has changed her way of thinking about injuries and speaking up when necessary. 

“I feel like I have learned that I can start speaking up,” Erika said. “It’s not a weakness to be injured. It’s more about protecting your body and your mind because the effects can be long-term.”

(Published January 2022)