Emma Kitchen’s last memory of December 2010 came on the first day of the month, a little before 6:00 p.m.
It was cold, dark, and rainy when she walked out of the Peterson Family Athletic Center and hopped on her bicycle for the five-minute ride to Proctor, where dinner awaited.
Her friend Bronwyn Oatley ’13 was with her, and as the two pedaled down South Main Street and turned left onto the service road that would take them past the health center, the back of the Service Building, and up the hill toward Stewart Hall, they mostly chatted about the weather, how raw it felt as the cold rain pelted their faces.
They picked up their pace as they started up the hill, and in the dark they did not see the flash of a figure racing down the hill on his own bicycle heading directly for them. And he didn’t see them either.
The impact of the head-on collision sent Emma Kitchen ’14 flying backward off her bike, and the first part of her body to make impact with the ground was the back of her head when it thudded onto the pavement.
As Oatley raced to the health center several hundred yards away in frantic search of help, the other bicyclist waited helplessly by Kitchen’s side, as she lay unconscious and unresponsive on the asphalt.
Her skull was fractured, her brain hemorrhaging.
Yet her nightmare had yet to begin.
Emma Kitchen’s nightmare had everything to do with her accident and nothing to do with what she actually felt. For most, the pain would be the worst, the pain associated with the fractured skull, the cerebral contusions, the subarachnoid hemorrhages. (The medevac to Burlington’s Fletcher Allen Hospital, the three days in the intensive care unit, the four additional days in the hospital, the remaining weeks leading up to Christmas convalescing at home in Collingwood, Ontario—those don’t even compute, because she remembers none of it.)
And if you can push past the inconceivable pain (and she did, convincing herself that as an athlete she was tough, tough enough to overcome even a traumatic brain injury), then surely what will get you, what will be the source of your night terrors are what follows: the dizziness, the nausea, the spinal vibrations, the inability to hold a thought. It will be registering -0.5 on a 0 to 7 neurocognitive assessment IMPACT test when you plead to return to school in February for spring semester.
But no, that was not the source of Emma Kitchen’s own living hell. It wasn’t even the five months that she was confined to bed rest, ordered to sleep 18 hours a day, and denied all visual stimulus—no books, no television, no computer—and all but minimal social activity. It wasn’t even the fleet of doctors, the neurosurgeons and neuropsychiatrists and physiotherapists and acupuncturists and naturopaths, as caring as they were, who could offer little more than a “sleep and you’ll get better” prescription.
Emma Kitchen’s nightmare, her living hell, was her solitary confinement within her own head.
She had no one to talk to who could tell her “I know what this is like.”
No one to tell her “I understand.”
No one to share a look that says “I know, but it gets better.”
Even as she healed, as the 18 hours of daily sleep over seemingly endless weeks returned her to the land of the living, she grieved.
And it was only when she finally found someone who had been through something similar, found someone to talk to from a place of shared experience, that she began to awaken from this horrible, debilitating feeling of isolation.
And this caused her to wonder: how many others are out there trapped in the same nightmare?
“I want to be absolutely clear: this is not about me. This is about the 1.2 million student-athletes under 20 who have been diagnosed with concussions during the past decade.”
Emma Kitchen is standing before a roomful of peers (and a handful of professional men and women) gathered in Middlebury’s Kirk Center on a cold early February morning. She is a poised young woman with a strong voice and contagious smile, and there is not a trace of the broken body and soul that resulted from her accident two years ago.
On this morning, she is winning over a group of entrepreneurs who are judging a contest that is the culmination of the winter term course MiddCORE. The contest is called the Next Big Idea, and the pitch that has captured everyone’s attention is a support network for student-athletes who have suffered head injuries.
Although the prevalence of concussions among athletes—and the serious neurological impact associated with such injuries—have seeped into the national consciousness through investigative journalism and awareness efforts promoted by the likes of the National Football League, that has not resulted in a corresponding increase in a “concussion community,” Kitchen says, a place where those suffering can share stories and offer support to one another.
Kitchen wants to change that, and for about 15 minutes she outlines her ambition to create a website that would fill the void. She rattles off statistics (the 1.2 million student-athletes who have been diagnosed with concussions during the past decade, the startling estimate that this figure could be closer to 8.4 million because so many go undiagnosed). She outlines a business plan; she talks start-up costs (about $10 thousand).
There are seven other Next Big Idea finalists in the room. Kitchen is the seventh to present, and as she wraps up her presentation, one notices a collective shoulder slump among her competitors, followed by admiring smiles. They know they’re now fighting for second place.
*** Since the beginning of February, Kitchen has not only won MiddCORE’s Next Big Idea title, but she has enlisted a business partner (her friend Kaitlin Surdoval ’12, who has suffered four concussions in her lifetime), and has won another competition, this one sponsored by the College’s Project on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts.
This latest achievement came with office space, alumni mentoring, and $3,000 in prize money. Phase one of their project begins this spring. Each week until the end of the academic year, Kitchen and Surdoval will bring student-athletes down to their studio in the Axinn Center to record testimonials. With the arrival of June, the two will hit the road, visiting campuses and summer programs, where they hope to add more stories to their database.
Their prize money is enough to get them started, Kitchen says, though she hopes to raise an additional $7,000 that will see them through phase one, with the launch of a video blog before autumn.
Emma Kitchen’s nightmare is over. But, she knows, others’ are just beginning.
Emma Kitchen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. When her website launches this summer, it can be found at www.concussionsspeak.com.