Ben Collins has been a professional triathlete since 2007. On October 26 while on his road bike riding with his regular, strong group of cyclists in Southern California, Ben crashed and suffered a severe concussion.
Coach Mark Sortino: Hey Ben, I remember the text you sent me the very next day along with a gnarly picture of your face post crash. Take us back and tell us what happened up to the point of no memory?
Ben: If I went back to what I definitively remember it would have no relevance to the incident. I can share the story I was told by the people I was with. I was out riding with friends and crashed on a steep descent. The groups I ride with do that descent several times a week, so it’s a route I know well, and have ridden plenty of times.
My face hit the pavement, I was bloodied and my friends had to get me home through the help of a good samaritan and an Uber.
Coach Mark Sortino: When did you realize that the concussion you had was serious?
Ben: Around the time the Uber arrived I started repeating questions. My friends said that I asked multiple times if they had my wife’s number and if we could call her.
They did; we had.
On my phone I have a series of selfies where i am staring into the camera, face dripping with blood. (Click photo for larger image.) My wife said I was constantly checking my pupils to see if they were different sizes (a sign of concussion). So presumably I realized it was a concussion pretty soon after the crash.
The scarier part was the memory loss. For the next day I was constantly aware that I had no idea how I got where I was, why my face hurt so bad and if I would be okay. It was like waking up from a vivid dream that you can’t remember to find yourself in a place where you don’t remember falling asleep.
My wife wrote the basics in sharpie on my forearms the way you write event and heat numbers on kids arms for swim meets. My arms read “I was in a bike crash. CT scan negative. I have a concussion.” This helped tremendously. I didn’t have to keep asking and it made me feel like I was being taken care of, greatly reducing my worry. What would have been even better is if she had written “the bike is fine”.
Coach Mark Sortino: What did the Doctor(s) say?
Ben: It was diagnosed as a concussion, but there was no bleeding in my skull or anything really scary. In the ER they told me to rest until I felt better, and that it could take a while. They told me not to go to work the next week, something I was stunned by, over and over again, every time my wife told me. "What do you mean I can't go to work? How long is this going to take?!"
At some point my wife started messing with me, "Ben, it's been three years. We have a daughter. You don't ride bikes anymore." This would have been funny if it didn't send me into a panic attack.
The memory started coming back the next day, which was a big relief because at that point I was really distressed.
What took weeks to start getting better was the exhaustion and mental fatigue. Just cooking eggs for breakfast was so exhausting I would go back to sleep for 3 hours. For the first two weeks I was getting 16 plus hours of sleep a day, with a full night's rest and three long naps. I couldn't look at a screen without an instant headache. I had trouble going out into the sunlight, loud noises were bad, my balance was off, and I felt like I was in a cloud. It was like my brain was just experiencing the spinning pinwheel of death.
The doctor had me riding a trainer as soon as I could. Exercise is really good for blood flow, which is what speeds healing. My road rash and stitches were looking pretty good by 2 weeks, but the fatigue and mental slowness lingered.
Coach Mark Sortino: I remember you telling me you reached out to a friend who had gone through a concussion…what did he tell you about the experience?
Ben: My friend was in a bike crash in Copenhagen where he was earning a PhD. He took a month off and tried to go back to work while he was still suffering symptoms, similar to what I had experienced. The symptoms got worse and he ended up having to take a full year off to recover. His advice was to be selfish with my health, be patient, and take the time I need.
Coach Mark Sortino: How long did it take for you to feel “yourself” again? Ben: It came back in spells. I would have half a day where I felt totally normal, then a full day of feeling awful. Slowly the good spells got longer and the bad spells got shorter. I went back to work after 5 weeks. It was during the 5th week that the cloud finally seemed to lift.
Coach Mark Sortino: What were the hardest parts of this recovery? Ben: It was lonely. I spent most of the time at my in-laws house, in a dark and quiet room, listening to audiobooks and meditating. I had lots of time to think. I'm pretty social, so I tried to see friends, but the interaction left me feeling drunk (not in a good way). After a couple weeks I had social anxiety because I was embarrassed.
Coach Mark Sortino: What did you learn through all this?
Mental health needs to be a priority. Losing memories, not being able think through problems, feeling like somebody else... It's scary. I'm so glad I took the time to fully recover.
If everyone could experience 5 minutes of a traumatic brain injury, we'd have 100% compliance with helmet laws. Still, road bike helmets really don't do enough. It would be good if there was a full face helmet
Silver lining: my creative brain came back before my analytic brain. In some ways this was really good. I tend to be very data driven, but with the time off I did a lot of creative thinking, writing, and getting to know a side of me that I haven't worked on for a long time.
Coach Mark Sortino: Any recommendations for other athletes out there if they ever have to go through this?
Ben: Protect your brain. Take time to recover.
Brain injuries are really different from physical injuries. You can't see the damage, and other people won't understand what you're going through. As soon as my wounds healed I felt pressure to go back to work. The instinct is to push through it and "try harder", especially for type-A athletes used to "pushing through pain". With a brain injury, it just takes time, and trying less is actually the best way to recover faster.
Ben 9 days post crash:
Ben about 6 weeks after the crash:
Ben, we wish you continued healing!