It was during a predawn April 2019 workout in Australia when Amelia’s life suddenly changed. The 36-year-old accidentally hit her head with a 10-kilo (22-pound) medicine ball. “My whole face shook,” says Amelia.
She went on to work at her government job even though she felt strange. “I kept telling my workmates my head really hurt,” she says. “But it’s the Australian way to just say, ‘Get on with it. You’ll be all right.'”
The next day, she had trouble talking on the phone and in meetings. Three days after her accident, Amelia says she was a “mess.” The normally busy wife and mother, who juggled a full-time job and a side business running a women’s fitness studio, could no longer function.
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“I felt fatigued and confused. I couldn’t have a simple conversation,” she says. “I was there physically, but not mentally.”
Over the next several months, Amelia’s condition remained the same as she went from doctor to doctor seeking help. She couldn’t watch TV or read; cooking in the kitchen was “a nightmare.” She recalls being reduced to tears while making a smoothie.
Doctors initially advised her to rest, exercise in a dark room on a stationary bike, and to stop when her heart rate became elevated. As her symptoms persisted, one doctor accused her of making it all up. Even her family doubted her.
“No one believed me — not my husband, not my mother, not even the doctors,” says Amelia. “I was crying all the time and no one understood why. They thought I was crazy. I became so despondent that I started to believe that, too.”
Hope finally came in a podcast shared by her husband. It was an interview with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who talked about his concussion and the treatment he received at the UPMC Sport Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh.
“Everything he said, I was going through. He was in a car crash and I hit my head with a medicine ball, but we had the same symptoms,” says Amelia. “I decided right then that I had to go to Pittsburgh.”
Amelia still had to convince her family — and overcome her fear of flying. “My father finally said, ‘I believe you,'” she says.
In October 2019 — six months after her accident — Amelia was on her way to America, accompanied by her father.
At UPMC, Amelia met with the team, including program director Michael “Micky” Collins, PhD. “Within 10 minutes of seeing him, I knew I was going to be OK,” she says. “I went back to my hotel room and cried. I was so relieved.”
During her 10-day stay in Pittsburgh, Amelia met with four different specialists, including Dr. Collins and Vestibular Rehabilitation Program Coordinator Anne Mucha, PT, DPT, MS, NCS. She learned she had two different types of concussion presentations— vestibular and anxiety — which share similar pathways in the brain.
“The best part about being in Pittsburgh is no one blinks when you tell them about your weird symptoms. They’ve heard it a thousand times before,” says Amelia. “They make you feel that this is normal and you’re going to get better.”
She was prescribed targeted physical therapy for both her vestibular and exertion deficits, designed by the rehabilitation experts at UPMC. In addition, the team recommended an “exposure and recovery” strategy — the opposite of the approach she was following in Australia. Everything she had avoided was now on her “to do” list. She returned home with a plan that included going back to work, reading, watching TV, shopping, and cooking.
“At first, going back into the kitchen was horrible. There’s so much turning, twisting, and bending involved when you cook. The motion was killing me,” says Amelia. “It sounds counterintuitive because you’re willfully making yourself sick. But it works.
“They pushed me hard. They said you’re going to hate it. You’re going to be sick, but you’re going to do it and you’ll be OK,” adds Amelia. “I never had doubts because I listened to Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and I trusted the team at UPMC.”
Throughout her recovery, Amelia received regular support from the UPMC concussion team via email and telemedicine. At their urging, she began taking anxiety medicine. When her recovery plateaued, they encouraged her to add dance therapy. She started taking twice weekly Salsa and Latin dance classes.
Amelia began feeling better within three months of her return, but it took a year to fully recover — a process she describes as “slowly expanding my bandwidth.” She added other activities, including playing the piano, watercolor painting, and gardening — which she says turned out to be “profoundly therapeutic.” She’s thrilled to be able to work, cook, clean, and especially, to run around with her 6-year-old daughter at the playground.
“It was worth every penny going to UPMC in Pittsburgh,” says Amelia. “I got my life back and you can’t put a value on that.”
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