By: Jennifer and Chris Carlin, parents to Alex Carlin, patient at Children’s Hospital
It was August 18, 2011. After conditioning all summer with the high school football team, camp had finally arrived. Alex was in amazing physical shape and being very sturdy and strong for his age, he was excited to join the team. Alex had spent four years playing football and devoted his entire summer to conditioning. At the age of 14, Alex was making many new friends with fellow ninth graders as well as upperclassman.
Football camp consisted of physical contact practice three times a day. Alex doesn’t remember a specific hit that was extra hard. Maybe it was too many consecutive hits. Whatever it was, at the end of the day…Alex had a headache.
Alex stopped practicing as soon as the headache occurred. The trainer was obviously concerned and told Alex to rest; maybe it was dehydration. With a continuous headache the next day, the trainer had Alex take ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) and the results were not favorable.
After a month of having a continuous headache, the concussion doctor referred Alex for a trial of medications to relieve the headache. None of the eight medications that were used over that year helped with his concussion symptoms. In fact, his symptoms progressively increased. They reached the point that Alex had a continuous pounding headache every day. There were days that his head hurt so badly that he could not even speak. The doctor was concerned, so she referred Alex to Catalina Cleves-Bayon, MD, headache specialist in the Brain Care Institute at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Dr. Cleves-Bayon was incredibly sincere, professional, and knowledgeable. By the way she spoke to Alex, it was obvious that she knew exactly how Alex felt and was very aware of his symptoms. Past medications had horrendous side effects, so she administered one more medication. The reason for trying one more medication is that most medical trials before had been inadequate. When that medication failed, she declared that medications were toxic to Alex. She immediately took him off all medications and referred Alex to Angela Garcia, MD, in the Division of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine.
Dr. Garcia was amazing from the start. If it weren’t for Dr. Garcia, Alex would still be suffering.
Upon exam, Dr. Garcia felt that Alex had issues with his neck and immediately referred him to physical therapy. She took the time to research who would be the best therapist to help Alex. We were shocked that a physician would actually take the time to ensure such a specific therapist.
Dr. Garcia’s efforts were a godsend. The referred physical therapist was highly skilled and was able to greatly improve Alex’s neck issues. It was during physical therapy that the therapist discovered raising Alex’s head about 1/8 of an inch when he lay on his back almost instantly made his headache go away. So back to Dr. Garcia we went. Dr. Garcia diagnosed Alex with occipital neuralgia, a neurological condition in which the occipital nerves — the nerves that run from the top of the spinal cord at the base of the neck up through the scalp — are inflamed or injured. After discovering this, she immediately sent Alex to see Dr. Samantha Kanarek, a sports and spine fellow for UPMC Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, for injections in the C1-C2 area of his upper neck.
Upon arrival to meet with Dr. Kanarek, we learned that Dr. Garcia had already spoken to Dr. Kanarek, obviously at length, because she already knew Alex’s entire story. The injections and their effects were exactly how Dr. Garcia explained them to us. This was the final piece that cured Alex and finally ended two extremely long, painful, and horrific years of suffering from severe concussion symptoms.
The doctors at Children’s Hospital are amazing. We met many people over the course of Alex’s injury. It took a team of doctors to help find the answers to heal Alex’s concussion. Children’s doctors are in a league all of their own! Dr. Garcia gave Alex hope that he’d get better and her positive and chipper attitude made the appointments very pleasant even though Alex wasn’t feeling well. All of the doctors we encountered at Children’s were very special and made Alex feel a very personal connection with them. He didn’t feel that he was just another patient, but rather a true human being who they (especially Dr. Garcia) actually cared about and were determined to help. After two very long years of suffering, Alex is finally feeling well. It brought a tear to my eye when Alex gave Dr. Garcia a big hug as we left our last appointment. It took a team and Dr. Garcia to give Alex his life back. Alex can now be a healthy 17-year-old boy, and begin to make up all the fun that he missed.
It was a complete pleasure working with all of the physicians at Children’s. Alex went through two very difficult years and Dr. Garcia is our hero and we are forever grateful for her help.
We’re glad to have Children’s EVERY DAY. They were there for our son and are there for your children too!