It’s never ‘just’ a concussion

January 31, 2024 Providence News Team

It’s never ‘just’ a concussion

Cheryle Sullivan, MD, has a unique perspective on traumatic brain injury (TBI). She calls it a 360-degree view. She’s a primary care physician, in 1997 she lost her mother to a brain injury from a fall, she cared for her father after his TBI, and she, herself, is living with brain injury resulting from a series of concussions. 

“A person with a TBI knows what dealing with a brain injury is like but doesn’t know what it’s like to care for someone with a TBI,” Dr. Sullivan said. “Caregivers can talk from their perspective, but they haven’t experienced living with a brain injury. My medical expertise is in family medicine, not brain injuries. Each one looks at TBI from the viewpoint of their own experience.”
Very few have the perspective that she does, and because of this, she has dedicated the last 20 years of her life to TBI education and advocacy, traveling nationwide to teach medical providers, educators, caregivers, and the public about this complex, yet common disability effecting 5 million people in the United States.

Her TBI journey
Dr. Sullivan’s personal journey with traumatic brain injury began in 2002 when she was just 45 years old.  She had a backward fall while skiing and even though she was wearing a helmet, Dr. Sullivan experienced a concussion. It was her sixth, and the cumulative effect of these strikes to her brain resulted in permanent disabilities. 

Immediately after that fall, the extent of her brain injury was not particularly obvious, including to her. Initially she had a mild headache. But as days went on, her list of symptoms grew.
“I worked for four days after my accident, and people were teasing me rather than recognizing I was dealing with a TBI,” she said.

She began experiencing confusion, double vision, sensitivity to noise, agitation, and short-term memory dysfunction. When she went in for medical care, the doctor told her she “just had a concussion and I would know when I am better and could go back to work.”

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