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TODD SLISS PHOTO

Connor Wolfe works with a youth lacrosse player this spring after leaving Connecticut College for the semester.

 
By TODD SLISS

If Connor Wolfe knew then what he knows now — what we all know now — about concussions, a type of traumatic brain injury, perhaps the spring and summer, and heading into the fall, wouldn’t have been so difficult. Hindsight won’t help the 2012 Scarsdale High School graduate, who four post-high school concussions later, is no longer on a “return to play” protocol, but a “return to life” mission.

After sustaining his fourth concussion in February, this one from ice hockey, Wolfe struggled to keep up with his schoolwork, eventually withdrawing from Connecticut College around spring break, returning home to literally and figuratively get his head straight. However, six months later, the impact of all four concussions lingers in his body.

“When this first happened six or seven months ago I thought, ‘Just another concussion,’” Wolfe said. “It didn’t seem that bad and I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. Maybe that affected it. Maybe I was in disbelief that it was happening again.”

This was not the first time Wolfe mismanaged a concussion. The first one was the summer between high school and college during a lacrosse game, and being out of town he got the first doctor he could find to clear him to play immediately. There was no rest, no management — just setting himself up for disaster.

According to Wolfe, “My first concussion three years ago I took a shot to the head, felt a little dizzy, went over to the trainer and she goes, ‘Look at my finger,’ and I go, ‘All right.’ Then she goes, ‘No, look at my finger.’ I said, ‘OK,’ but she said that one eye was over here and the other over there. She didn’t let me play again until I got a note. It was just me and my grandfather, so we found some hospital and the doctor gives me a note that said I could play again as long as I didn’t get hit in the head again. The next morning I played the rest of the tournament. Now that would be tsk, tsk. If a kid gets hit in the head, whether they concussed or not, they still sit out for a week.

1986 Scarsdale graduate Alan Schwarz became well known for exposing the NFL’s concussion problems and bringing the issue to the national forefront in The New York Times. The science of the concussion is still an ongoing study, but positive steps are being taken to recognize and rest concussions to allow healing time, which for most people is less than two weeks.

“It’s definitely interesting to see how everything has changed in just a few years,” Wolfe said. “It’s nice to see the direction it’s heading. It’s a statistic until it’s you. Isn’t that what people say?”

At Scarsdale, Wolfe was the goalie for both the varsity ice hockey and lacrosse teams. In ice hockey he helped the Raiders to the Section 1 finals as a senior, where the team lost 3-2 to Pelham. He continued his athletic career in college, playing club ice hockey and varsity lacrosse. With his college teams he took baseline tests for concussion vs. nonconcussion comparison, but by the time the latest concussion happened he had taken the test so many times he actually felt he was “getting good at it,” rendering the test unreliable.

When Wolfe returned home from school this spring he was doing his best to take it easy, and found some normalcy in coaching youth lacrosse in town and giving lessons. It didn’t require much effort on his part, so it was a good fit in April. In hindsight, Wolfe sees that things weren’t as great as everyone thought they were for him, weren’t as great as he thought things were for him.

Wolfe tried to put on that happy face and vibrant personality he is well known for during that time, but he was hurting inside and found himself unable to complete the schoolwork he had missed. Wolfe is determined to head back to school on Sept. 1 as a part-time student, but the time from then to now has been worse than ever for Wolfe, who now realizes how depressed he was in the spring. The mask he was wearing started coming off and once May hit he knew he had to focus on both his mental and physical states.

At this point, what was once considered normal in his life he can’t even remember. The symptoms have taken over and been there longer than he knew at the time, and that’s his new state of normal. Something has changed and too much time has passed. “I got to a point where I realized I had to take it easy,” Wolfe said. “I get panic attacks now just thinking about stuff. Breakdowns. It’s not fun. You don’t know when you’re ready and you don’t want to push it. But you want to be mobile and be yourself. Another issue is once you start feeling good you want to push further, and then you’re prone to setbacks, which has happened a couple of times already.”

When Wolfe first came home he saw experts and since then he’s seen more and more. In the spring he was getting in some light stationary bike work and coaching, even though he knew he had to be as still as he could be on the sidelines and in demonstrating to the kids.

“I’m just trying to do what I can, stay active, but not overactive,” he said in the spring. “I can’t really move too much, but I’m able to take shots. With the little kids 8-11 you really don’t have to shoot the ball too hard, so it’s a lot of just positioning and fundamentals. It’s nice because that’s what you should be concentrating on at this age. You want to make sure they understand what they should be doing rather than going out there full force with them. It’s good in that regard. I can get the kids to shoot on the goalies if I need help.”

Working with the kids did put a legitimate smile on Wolfe’s face.

“I love it,” Wolfe said. “They’re adorable. It’s really nice to be able to get out of the house and work with kids who are so excited and full of passion for the game. They just want to be there and it’s nice to have that atmosphere around you, especially when things aren’t so great.”

Unfortunately that’s another thing he realized that he needed to give up in order to focus on getting himself healthy instead of masking his symptoms.

“There are so many factors that you don’t know what’s going on and it’s scary,” Wolfe said. “There’s really no timetable for concussions. There is as far as the original concussion and generally you wait two weeks. Then with post-concussion syndrome, second concussion syndrome and multiple concussion issues there really is no timetable for recovery. It can be months to years.”


Getting help

Memorial Day weekend Wolfe headed down to Carrick Brain Center in Atlanta for a week of diagnostic tests and therapy. That’s where he spent his 21st birthday, but that’s also helped him take steps forward in his return to life.

One of the major focuses was on Wolfe’s eyes. Eye therapy is one way to help heal the brain. He’s been following a rigorous schedule of rehab.

Though the fourth concussion was the final straw for Wolfe, only now does he realize just how much the first concussion impacted his life. Doctors collected photos of him spanning his entire life. From those photos they could see the slight change in his left eye following that first blow in 2012.

“You notice the left eye dropping off to the side a little bit,” Wolfe said. “What the brain does is mask the nondominant eye and focuses on one eye. The other eye is just there and you use it from time to time. You focus to suppress double vision, something I’ve been dealing with a while. I saw it in certain instances, but never really thought twice about it.”

A month ago he started vestibular rehabilitation therapy, which according to the Vestibular Disorders Association, “is an exercise-based program designed to promote central nervous system compensation for inner ear deficits,” at NYU’s Rusk Rehabilitation.

“They’ve helped and a lot of things have gotten better, but you wake up every morning and you feel hungover,” Wolfe said. “That’s just how the feeling is. That’s the best way to describe it. My eyes are still a little off. They get tired, things get blurry. It doesn’t take much. I can’t really stare at screens for a while still. Rapid movements aren’t really a thing anymore. Balance sometimes is low. I’m working on that. Just the increased mental strain is rough. Mood swings as well sometimes. I get really aggravated easily.”

Three weeks ago Wolfe saw a functional neurologist with a nutritional approach. Based on a blood test they could see what might be hindering the healing process, so Wolfe was put on a European Paleo/gluten-free diet that is “supposed to limit swelling and allow the gut and the brain to heal.”

“I had an MRI done in March and there were no signs of permanent damage or hemorrhaging,” Wolfe said. “It’s really a matter of time before things clear up. It’s all been frustrating because I’ll progress very strongly for a month and then my body will deteriorate back again. Hopefully this nutritional diet will help me get to the point I’ve been at and then break down that barrier and go past it.

“It’s gotten better over the summer, a lot better. When I spoke to you the last time I was depressed. I wasn’t really doing well and things have picked up a lot. A lot of things have gotten better through these exercises I’ve been doing. At the same time it’s also very exhausting. It really takes a lot out of you.”

Having taken ADHD medication since he was 7 years old may have made Wolfe more prone to concussions or to more severe prolonged side effects.

“There are certain things scientifically speaking that kids with ADHD are more prone to and it takes longer to recover,” Wolfe said. “There are studies that show that being on ADHD medicine for a long time shuts down certain pathways that your brain uses to function and concentrates more on others. It’s a crutch for your brain. As a result you are more prone to post-concussion syndrome and long-term effects.”


CONNECTICUT COLLEGE PHOTO

Connor Wolfe

 
Returning to life

Wolfe is now winning more battles than he’s losing. He does plenty of normal activities like babysitting, playing a round of golf and going on a week’s vacation. But to pass the test, he’s got to be able to continue his education, finish strong and lead the life he thought he was headed for three years ago, minus some of his old athletic favorites.

Wolfe spent part of the summer working at an architectural firm part time, just a small taste of real life awaiting him back at school.

“It’s been going all right,” Wolfe said. “I feel better when I do it. It was exhausting the first couple of weeks. It put me in a funk, but it’s picked up. My body just takes time to adapt, I guess. I’ve been kind of dormant for a while.”

Wolfe hopes to be part of Connecticut College’s class of 2017 as he eases back into academics.

“I think going back to a full course load would be absolutely absurd,” Wolfe said. “I can do three or four hours a day and I’m exhausted. A full course load could be an hour and a half to six hours of classes a day.”

Wolfe is an economics major who is minoring in history. He finds commercial real estate “fascinating.” He worked with a private wealth management company last summer and was supposed to work in commercial real estate in hotels this summer, but had to give that experience up.

There have been times when his love of history has been a saving grace for him — he would sit in the dark listening to documentaries on the History Channel. “Obviously there are some times when you’ve got to just take a step back and be alone,” he said. “My buddies have been understanding and my family has been great.”

College won’t be the same for Wolfe. College life as he once knew it is essentially over, barring some miraculous turnaround. Wolfe will be glad to be around his friends, but he won’t be at practices with his athlete friends, and his social life will be… different.

Even by returning to school, Wolfe can’t say things are getting back to normal. It’s a big step toward that goal, however.

“I’m still not better, not 100 percent,” he said. “I still have issues. There are still things that are lingering around longer than I would like, but we’re working on them. Getting back is a nice idea. I’m looking forward to being surrounded by my friends again and being independent. That being said, there’s a lot of temptation that comes with that, being a teenager, being a college kid as far as having fun. There are a lot of things I can’t do comfortably knowing how they affect my body now. It opens your eyes to a lot of things.”

While Wolfe would change the way he handled his four concussions, he would still have lived his athletic life the same way.

“There’s some things you can’t limit for kids,” Wolfe said. “Childhood is all about running outside, sports — that’s how you make friends, that’s how you do your thing. You can’t take that away from a kid. Whatever the percentage is, all you can do is try to monitor the risk and try to work with it.”

One thing Wolfe has known all along is that he is done playing lacrosse and ice hockey, which for any athlete can be a difficult life change, one that can cause even more mental strain on top of everything else.

“I think I’m done with contact sports,” Wolfe said. “Maybe I’ll find something a little easier when I get things going. For now and the foreseeable future I’m done.

“It’s weird to go back and not have that in my life. That’s something that has always dominated my life for the last 16 years. It’s been a huge part of who I was and who I am today. It will be very weird to not do that, but at the same time it opens up the door for other opportunities whether working on personal life or studies or this and that. It will be beneficial in the long run.”

Though you might not be able to see what’s going on with Wolfe, you can really hear it in his voice — he’s worn down, but his resolve is 100 percent to get better.

“People can’t tell what’s going on the inside from the outside,” Wolfe said. “It’s just one of those things that’s really undetectable.”

Seeing may be believing, but feeling is revealing.



Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

 

August 28, 2015

Connor’s concussions

• Concussion 1, July 2012: Between high school graduation and heading off to Connecticut College, Wolfe was playing in a summer league lacrosse game when he took a shot to the helmet, which in turn “just exploded.”

• Concussion 2, February 2014: Wolfe was boxing with a friend, but then decided to take on someone a bit bigger. He “took too many punches to the back of the head” and when he got up he couldn’t “see straight anymore.”

• Concussion 3, March 2014: Wolfe slipped on a shower curtain and fell.

• Concussion 4, February 2015: This time it was ice hockey, a minor concussion from a cheap shot on a power play. “I gave it time to heal and mentally I thought I was ready but physically I guess I wasn’t,” he said. “I took a minor bump after that and reconcussed it and it exacerbated the injury and then there’s been a couple of incidents that have created hiccups.”

A new goal in life

After 4 concussions, Connor Wolfe shifts focus from sports to ‘return to life’

SCARSDALE INQUIRER/JOHN MEORE

Connor Wolfe at home not long before returning to Connecticut College.

 
SCARSDALE INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

Twice a goalie, Connor Wolfe protected the net for Scarsdale lacrosse, too.

 
SCARSDALE INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

Connor Wolfe played ice hockey for the Scarsdale Raiders.