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The day I forgot to speak English

I’ve been playing soccer for a very long time. In fact, I can remember the first time I played soccer back when I was six years old and my cousin Danny came to visit me in Juarez. There were some kids out on the street kicking the ball around, and we decided to challenge them to a game. I don’t remember much else about that game because it was so long ago, but I do remember that it got me started on a path to playing soccer for sport, for fitness, and for entertainment.

Compared to some other sports, soccer is not that violent. Most of the injuries you see on the field are over-exaggerations of injuries by players who know that the referee is a human being who can be influenced into making a call. If someone barely touches you and you fall the ground in a fit of pain, the ref might think that the hit was worse than it was and rule in your favor and even sanction or expel the other player. That said, there are times when injuries on the field can be pretty bad.

I remember watching as one of my buddies had to be helped off the field because he broke his leg, badly. It just snapped in half right at the shin. It was horrible to watch, and I still cringe to this day when I think about it. Hence, even in pick-up soccer games, I try to wear shinguards. I’ve gotten used to wearing them, so they don’t really get in the way of me playing.

I’ve also seen a couple of head injuries, maybe one or two knockouts. I’ve also experienced a couple of knockouts… So let me tell you about the day I forgot to speak English. (For the record, I learned English at a very young age, but not at the same time as I learned Spanish. This is a key piece of information for later.)

Alright, so, four years ago, I joined an indoor soccer team in Westminster, Maryland. The facilities were great, and it was a welcomed release of stress after long days in the winter at the health department. There’s nothing like flu season to really take it out of you. We played fairly late in the evening, so I’d pick up my brother-in-law after work and drive up to Westminster from Baltimore to play.

The people who played were of all ages and abilities, but young and agile did make up most of the players. There were also some women, which made games more interesting because, well, you can’t be “too rough when you play women,” according to the rules. (I’d beg to differ, though. But that’s for a post at a later time.) In one of the games, I decided to step up and play goalkeeper when our keeper didn’t show up. I had not played in that position in a while, but it was like riding a bicycle. You just saw which way the ball was going and position yourself in a way that will allow you to make a play for the ball. You cannot stop every shot, but you can be in the direction of the shot and look like a hero when you do stop it.

Well, I did stop the ball a few times with my hands before I decided to stop it with my face. Two of the opposing players were coming at me, and I had no one else to help me defend. The one player passed the ball to the other, and the other one took a shot right at my face. In my mind, I see the ball coming at me, then nothing, then I see the floor of the indoor arena in front of my face as I’m laying down on the group. I could taste blood. From what others told me, the ball hit me square on the chin, knocking me back and down.

It was a “down goes Frasier!” kind of moment. I passed out for a couple of seconds, got my lip cut, and I was taken out of the game for the rest of the evening. I felt fine. I’d had concussions before. That didn’t feel like a concussion… It was more of a “bell ringing” and nothing more.

I didn’t play the following week because of work, but I came back to play two weeks later. That game, like the other one, was hard fought. I managed to get a few good plays in here and there. In one play, I managed to get to a divided ball before the opposing player. I kicked the ball forward past him but he didn’t stop. Not only did he not stop, he collided and then used his arms to shove me. That’s all I remember.

My friends and my brother-in-law said that he shoved me against the plexiglass wall. I hit the wall and bounced off it to the ground then had some sort of seizure. The next thing I remember is everyone around me, and one of the female players holding my head. She said something about being a nurse. I remember being incredibly confused. I could hear what they were saying, but words faded in and out and out of context. For example, the girl said “I’m a nurse” and then there’s gibberish. I’d come to learn later that she was a nursing student, not a full-fledged nurse. I remember the paramedics came to get me, and I somehow told my brother-in-law to get my wallet for me.

On the ride to “Shock Trauma” at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, the paramedic in the back of the ambulance asked me some questions. I was very confused. I couldn’t answer some of them, and, when I did, she looked at me like I was a lizard on a salad, i.e. confused and worried. That made me worry even more. I thought of all those television specials where someone has “locked in” syndrome after a brain injury or stroke. Was I stroking out?

I lifted my legs and moved my arms and could see that I was okay.

Once at the hospital, the team of nurses and physicians worked me over pretty well. Blood was drawn, x-rays were taken, and then I was taken to get a head CT. I remember trying to answer their questions, but they didn’t seem satisfied with what I told them. Then, a physician approached me and started speaking Spanish to me. I understood him perfectly, and he explained to me what was going on.

He told me that I had a concussion, a bad one, and that there were signs on the CT scan of a recent, previous concussion. “You had two in too short a time,” he said to me in Spanish. And this second one must have hit you right in the language center. I’m no neurologist, but I’ve come to learn that we have several areas of the brain that are in charge of language. One takes language in and decodes it, the other takes our thoughts and ideas and decodes them out. People, like me, who are bilingual but learned the two languages (or more languages) at different times, encode this capability in different parts of the brain. It seems that the English encryption/decryption part had been hit that night. The Spanish was okay. He explained that this was why I could understand what was being said to me, though not all of it. The English was in and out.

They watched me for a few hours, and after a terrible headache set in and was then controlled by ibuprofen, I was sent home with strict orders not to do any contact sports. Come morning, the English had come back enough that I was able to explain to my then-fiancee what had happened. I was still having some issues with language, though. For example, I’d tell her something like, “I need to ir al baño real quick,” thinking that I had said it all in English.

Over the next few weeks, the symptoms of the two concussions coming together set in badly. I had a bad mood a lot of the time. I was irritable. I wasn’t getting all the sleep I needed. I’d snap at people for very minor things. And I had a hard time reading in English. The words would fade in and out of gibberish. But the symptoms subsided and went away. As you can see, my hypergraphia remains and I am able to write these blog posts still today.

I still play soccer, but I’m much more subdued in how hard I go for a ball. After all, I’m not playing for the World Cup or anything. I’m just playing to exercise and have fun.

I’ve also become more aware of head injuries in sports and will probably be incorporating that into my public health practice. I cringe when I see kids who are put back into games after being knocked out either by incompetent medical staff on their teams or overzealous parents who are living vicariously through those kids. Something needs to be done about that and about a society that tolerates recurring brain injuries as a sign of an “indomitable spirit” or an “unwillingness to quit.”

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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