More than three years after a fire extinguisher fell on her head, Canadian screenwriter-director and former actor and child star Sarah Polley was still struggling with crippling concussion symptoms. Learn how Sarah made a full recovery — and won an Oscar® for Women Talking — after receiving care from Michael “Micky” Collins, PhD, at the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program.
The Challenge: A Life-Altering Concussion
In 2015, Sarah Polley, then 36, was rummaging through the lost-and-found box at her local community center in Toronto, Canada, when a large fire extinguisher fell off the wall, striking the side of her head and jaw. It was a life-changing blow for the busy mom, wife, screenwriter, and filmmaker.
Despite an aching jaw, she left the center to pick up her child from preschool. Outside, she was immediately overwhelmed by light and noise. “I couldn’t think straight,” says Sarah. “I couldn’t walk straight, everything slowed down. The noise was unbearable. Going out into the street was bewildering.”
That night she called her sister, a family doctor in British Columbia, who suspected she’d had a concussion. Initially, Sarah felt dizzy, confused, and nauseous. Then came the headaches — migraines so severe she felt her brain was hemorrhaging. Unable to write or even look at a computer screen for more than a few minutes at a time, she had to back out of the screenplay she was writing for the remake of Little Women.
Over the next three years, Sarah saw a half dozen specialists with conflicting instructions — some helped, some didn’t, none lasted. “A lot of the advice I got was, ‘Lie in a dark room, rest, listen to your body,'” she says. As time went on, Sarah improved slightly, but with limitations. “I still wasn’t working. I couldn’t be in a crowded room or go grocery shopping,” she says.
Then, Sarah’s concussion symptoms roared back following the birth of her third child in 2018. “I was no longer functional,” she says. “I felt scared all the time — scared that I was missing my kids’ childhoods, that I’d never work again, and I’d have this incredibly limited life.”
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Sarah’s Path to UPMC
Sarah learned about the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program from a friend who’d gone there for treatment after struggling for years with her own concussion symptoms. The friend emailed Sarah a link to a video of the program’s director, Michael “Micky” Collins, PhD, describing concussions.
After listening to Dr. Collins, Sarah finally understood the mechanics of what happened to her. She also heard: “Concussions are manageable. Concussions are treatable.”
In April 2019, Sarah traveled to Pittsburgh where Dr. Collins diagnosed her with a primary vestibular concussion with post-traumatic migraine and anxiety.
“The vestibular system is responsible for interpreting movement, motion, and sensory integration, like lights, noises, balance, being in busy environments, and riding in cars,” explains Dr. Collins. “It is connected to the nervous system, which shares the same pathways in the brain.”
Her vestibular problem had switched on her anxiety, which led to migraines. “Sarah needed to retrain her brain to break that communication,” says Dr. Collins.
Run Towards the Danger
Sarah says she’ll never forget what Dr. Collins told her in that first meeting: “If you remember only one thing from this meeting, remember this: Run towards the danger.”
“In order for my brain to recover, I had to retrain it by charging towards the very activities that triggered my symptoms,” says Sarah. “This was a paradigm shift for me — to greet and welcome the things I had previously avoided.”
During her visit, Sarah met with other members of the concussion team, including vestibular therapist Anne Mucha, PT, DPT, MS, NCS. After an examination and a series of tests, the team prescribed a personalized treatment plan that included a daily regimen of rigorous physical and vestibular exercises. Activities she had avoided because they triggered symptoms were now on her daily “to-do” list, including grocery shopping, socializing, screen time, driving, and going to film sets.
Contrary to earlier advice to stop activities when she felt uncomfortable, Dr. Collins instructed Sarah to keep pushing. Instead of resting, she needed to do exercises or go for a fast walk. It would take hard work, but she would recover. Before she left, he said: “What you’ve been doing so far hasn’t worked that well. So, it’s worth giving it a real try.”
“It was very empowering,” says Sarah. “In that moment, Dr. Collins made me believe I was actually very strong and capable of doing this.”
A Life Renewed
When Sarah returned home to Toronto, she followed her prescribed treatment plan to the letter — faithfully doing her exercises and filling her days with errands, chores, writing, and socializing. Her children helped with some of her therapy, including a vestibular exercise that involved tossing a ball around her back, then quickly turning to catch the ball they tossed back to her.
“I had faith because I’d seen firsthand someone who got better by following Dr. Collins’ advice to the letter,” says Sarah. “My kids had faith because they saw me doing something active to deal with the concussion instead of lying down and napping. They were excited to be part of it — and that was very motivating.”
Just two weeks later, Sarah went to a restaurant with her husband and another couple. Halfway through dinner, she realized that for the first time in more than three years, she was following a conversation and contributing — and without feeling pain.
“From that moment on, I knew it was going to work,” says Sarah. By the time she returned to Pittsburgh for her six-week follow-up, she was “completely better. The headaches, brain fog, confusion, dizziness, and fatigue were gone,” she says.
Sarah was an “outstanding patient,” says Dr. Collins. “It wasn’t easy. But she embraced what we said and did everything she needed to succeed. As a clinician, it’s very rewarding to see how far she’s come.”
A Powerful Impact
“Run towards the danger” became Sarah’s mantra — and the title of her memoir: Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory. In her book, which was published in 2022, Sarah includes a chapter detailing her concussion story and acknowledges Dr. Collins, Anne Mucha, and the UPMC concussion team “who gave me my brain and my life back.”
In 2023, Sarah won an Academy Award® for the screen adaptation of Women Talking, which includes a scene she says came directly out of her UPMC experience. “The women are leaving, and they’re saying, ‘We’re terrified but we’re going to do this anyway,'” says Sarah.
Sarah continues to tell her story whenever she gets the chance. She’s done countless interviews and even appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Her words have had a powerful impact, says Dr. Collins.
“Hundreds and hundreds of patients have come to us because of Sarah,” he says. “Because of what she wrote, they come here knowing that we’re going to push them. They understand what we’re asking them to do.”
“That’s amazing,” says Sarah. “In my wildest dreams I hoped maybe one person would read my story and get the care that I got. That makes me happy.
“I’ll always be grateful for the care I received. Dr. Collins and his team didn’t just give me my life back, they changed my life for the better. I have a different way of looking at the world and what I’m capable of. It’s been an amazing shift for me and my whole family.”
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.