Medal-winning skier Jena Sneva is battling the effects of concussions.photo provided
Medal-winning skier Jena Sneva is battling the effects of concussions.photo provided

Jenna Sneva knew the first time she put on a pair of snow skis that she had stepped into her life passion. By the age of 13, she saw the Olympics on her horizon.

From the age of 7, she began winning medals, skiing in the Mount Bachelor Ski Foundation program and in youth and teen competitions at national levels. In April, 2010, at the age of 19, she won gold at the USA Snowboard Association in Skier Cross.

A wipeout worse than any she had suffered in her years of sports halted her dreams in 2010. It happened, not with a new injury, but with the discovery that she has post-concussion syndrome (PCS).

The stoic athlete, who never let pain dissuade her from activity, had been struck with severe headaches in February, 2010. She sought relief at the emergency room in Corvallis, where she was a freshman at Oregon State University. She was treated with migraine medications that were minimally successful, but "took the edge off," according to

Sneva.

The headaches persisted, with five days a week of tolerable pain and two days of debilitating suspected migraines. She skied anyway, and continued with her studies.

There were two more visits to the ER; CT scans and MRIs. Physicians tried other migraine and pain medications, but nothing was very effective.

"I started feeling like there was no point seeing any more doctors because nobody could figure anything out," Sneva said. "I hated the feeling of being drugged, and medication really didn't help. I learned to deal with the headaches because I couldn't stop my life."

She was treated by a neurologist who tried everything from anti-depressants to anti-seizure drugs and intravenous steroids. No relief.

Then, in the spring, her third-quarter grades hit bottom, after an impressive beginning in her freshman year.

"My parents were disappointed, and I couldn't explain why," she expressed with sadness.

She could not stay focused. She was fidgety, extremely uncomfortable in large groups, suffering unexplainable stress. This was far distant from the very social person she had been. She felt like she was suffering attention deficit disorder.

Last September, she experienced the sensation of her spine being crushed. She returned to the ER, and the response was to try medication again. She frequently spoke "gibberish," nonsensical words and phrases, unaware until her sorority sisters told her. She had trouble thinking of specific words, much like a stroke victim. She was depressed with her inability to retain information or to do challenging school assignments. She would often run into door frames when leaving a room.

A family friend, an ophthalmologist, drove her to Oregon Health Sciences University, seeking state-of-the-art diagnosis. A sports medicine orthopedist reviewed her history and decided to evaluate her for PCS.

PCS is determined mostly by symptoms and patient history. When suspected, evaluation through tests of ability to think (cognition), brain and body coordination, visual acuity and a host of other functional exercises lends support to the preliminary diagnosis. With the current media blitz of creating public awareness of the formerly insidious disease, there has come improvement in early diagnosis and treatment. At the least, continuing activities after a brain trauma is being curtailed.

The findings for Sneva were shocking. Her verbal memory was less than six percent of normal, her hearing memory less than one percent. Overall, her memory was 33 percent of the standard. Diagnosis of PCS was confirmed.

The message: Her skiing days were over for at least two years, as were her other strenuous sports and activities. If she had another head injury, she could be paralyzed, or, her physician said, "you'll be lucky to remember your name."

Therapy was begun in an effort to remap her brain from it's confused patterns. Sneva approached therapy as she has approached every goal in her young life, with determination, dedication and expectation of good results.

Visual impairment demanded an ocular (eye) therapist. This helped Sneva resolve a blank space in her vision that caused her to collide with doors and other objects. Her visual tracking had to be retrained with the use of prism lens glasses that she still wears.

Because she was unable to recite her ABCs when asked, cognitive therapy was intense. She could fit a square block in a square hole, but could not distinguish size. With the addition of physical and occupational therapy, the restoration of normal patterns of thinking and reduction of inappropriate response to mild life stressors began to show results. The process was long and exhausting.

Sneva was in Portland once a week for a day with four therapists. In Corvallis, she did another 3-4 hours a day of home exercise, brain teasers, puzzles and yoga. She was advised to leave school, but she resisted. A compromise was reached, with fewer classes and no difficult sciences. Mental stress could aggravate the condition.

A year after her symptoms began, Sneva has normal visual tracking, no fear of crowds, no episodes of colliding with inert objects and a new view of life. A new manifestation of passive seizures means she doesn't drive, but Sneva is realistic about the next two years of a different life.

Golf is the only approved sport, so her father, Gary, got her a new set of golf clubs for Christmas. In the spirit of a survivor, she has rekindled her enjoyment of golf.

Now, she wants to share her story with youths in her former Sisters schools, hoping they will learn from her mistakes. Returning to a sport soon after a head injury "isn't worth what I went through." Neither, she said, is her letterman's jacket, all the medals, patches and awards.

"I want to talk to kids who may remember me, and let others meet me so they have a personal experience with someone who has this disease. I want my message to be in the backs of their minds when they don't want to take six weeks off after a concussion. It scares me when I hear about a kid getting a head injury and being back on the playing field a week later.

"I thought my sports activities were giving me the greatest memories, the greatest times, but I could have had different great memories. A concussion is a very big deal."

Her mother, Ronda, calls PCS the invisible disease. Fatigue, personality changes, headaches and lack of focus are signs that may indicate a very dangerous condition. In Sneva's case, multiple mild concussions were once considered something to "shake off." To this young athlete, "it just wasn't that big a deal."

Sneva has found strength in the support of her family, boyfriend and sorority sisters. She has also appreciated that no one was going to give her sympathy that would let her back off the necessary work she had to do. A few weeks ago, in a slump of depression, she texted her mother. Her mother responded, "But it's been a great 13 years."

Sneva feels that messages like this have been powerful and important, keeping her from indulging in self-pity. Her friend Hillary said, during the months of intense therapy, "You will get better, maybe not fully, but better." The backing of family and friends has taught her a valuable life lesson. Her personal relationships are different, richer, fuller and as rewarding as any medal.

She also realizes the outcome could have been very different. This is why she wants her story heard, more and more, until mild concussions are no longer called "no big deal."