Now 18, Brayden Cuthbert of Brandon was just a 16-year-old playing his first season with the Moose Jaw Warriors when, on January 22, 2011, he took a hard hit during a hockey game in Red Deer and banged his head on the ice. That incident started a medical adventure he’d rather not have endured. But he’s finally come out on the other side of the injury, and just eight days ago, played his first game in 20 months with his new team, the Neepawa Natives.
Playing Major Junior Tier 1 hockey, as you were at the time, obviously you’d be geared out you would’ve had a helmet on, right? So what happened?
Well, you know, there’s always contact in the game, and I didn’t have the puck, so I really didn’t expect to get hit. The guy stepped into me so I guess none of my muscles were braced, and it really sent me back. And that’s when the concussion’s going to happen your brain hits the inside of your skull.
And so you fell to the ice, then, or into the boards?
It was an open-ice hit, so I went right down to the ice. I got back up and played a couple more shifts and thought I was fine. But then after that, I started feeling really woozy things weren’t going right, I could tell really quickly so then I got off the ice. I was feeling really dizzy and literally started seeing stars.
I presume that would be terrifying! Or did you associate how you were feeling with the fall? Do they tell you ahead of time, when you get into those leagues, that you might take hits like that and concussion might be a result? Or were you pretty much in the dark until it took place?
Well, you always hear about concussions, especially now they’ve been a huge topic but you never think it’s going to be you. You don’t go into the game thinking, "Oh, I could get a concussion tonight."
I’ve always taken some big hits, but I’ve always been able to bounce up and keep on playing. But that game was different. I took the hit and got up. But something just wasn’t right. So it was unfortunate just one of those things that happens.
So is there a team doctor? Was there somebody who was tending to you right afterward?
We have our team therapist and he’s with us 100 per cent of the time. And we were in Red Deer, so Red Deer — they have doctors on standby, so they tended to me immediately.
After the game, we bused back to Moose Jaw we dealt with our doctors in Moose Jaw, and with the trainers. The thing is, it didn’t look like it was that serious of a concussion. I didn’t feel great, but there’s definitely people who’ve felt worse at the start point, so we didn’t think it was going to be an 18 or 20-month process at the time.
So I just kept on getting better, week to week. And then about a month in, my roommate and I got in a car crash and I hit my head on the windshield, and that set me back. And we feel that’s sort of what’s had the end result of what’s taken things so long.
So after the second incident, you were not playing hockey?
Yeah. I was in Moose Jaw. After a while, I tried I thought I got better and I tried to skate a couple of times but the symptoms were still there in practice, so we just shut it down for the season. And I just continued to watch the games with the rest of the guys, and go on the bus I was still part of the team and everything, but just obviously wasn’t taking part in the games.
Describe the symptoms for me.
At the start, you’re just really sensitive to noise, bright lights. You have constant headaches. You’re frequently quite tired, and then emotionally, you get really edgy you snap at people and you don’t really know why. You’re really low.
As the concussion goes on, you lose the sensitivity to light and noise, and you lose a majority of the headaches, except for when you pick up activity. Then they’ll resume. But those emotional ones, they tend to stick around a little longer, along with some of the lighter headaches.
I understand that concussions are one of the few acquired brain injuries that you can actually recover from. But do you still have some of the symptoms? Can some of these emotions still come out of the blue and surprise you?
Well, after such a long time as this, I think I’m pretty good now taking off a full season last year is probably the best thing I could have done for myself to save my head from future concussion problems and future head injuries.
But last year was really hard for me emotionally just sitting out, not playing hockey. It was probably the first season in my whole life, as long as I can remember, that I wasn’t playing hockey. The concussion and not playing hockey add those two together and I was on an emotional roller coaster, so I think being anywhere but home would have added to that. So being at home in Brandon was where I needed to be and that really, really helped me out, being around really good people.
Did people in the hockey world or elsewhere, I suppose understand what you were going through? Were people unintentionally cruel, or did they have expectations, or did they really just have no idea at all about what’s involved with a brain injury?
I think a lot of people expect you to suck it up and get back on the ice. But the thing is, it’s not like a sprained ankle or something where you can sometimes sort of just walk it off. You’ve really got to sit it out and wait. That’s the only thing you can do. You can’t get back in the gym because if you do that, you’re just going to set yourself back another month and in the end, that’s going to hurt you more.
It’s hard. You’ve got to live with people sometimes criticizing you, thinking you’re I don’t know weak. But you’ve got to look out for yourself because sometimes you’re the only person who’s going to do that.
But there are good people out there, and there’s lots of people in the hockey world who know what you’re going through. And the Moose Jaw Warriors respected me and my choices to sit out my 17-year-old season. So they handled my concussion very well.
Were there particular comments that you especially remember? Were there incidents where people said something really stupid or insensitive that stuck with you or ticked you off or hurt your feelings?
Not anything in particular. You hear the odd concussion joke or whatever. But they don’t really stick with you. It’s hard, but you get over it. And it’s a hard time in your life, but anyone else who’s in the same position, you wouldn’t say that stuff to them. Lots of people really just don’t know what you’re going through.
Are you completely healthy yet? Or do you still have headaches or other symptoms?
I’d say I’m pretty well in the clear now. I played my first junior game with no real symptoms coming out of that, which was a big step forward for me. But probably a month or two ago, I would just have some minor symptoms, like after a hard practice or after a workout, I might get some light headaches that would only last for the rest of the night. But over the next week or two, those slowly disappeared. And now I’m playing hockey again, and enjoying life. But it’s been a long road.
Is it something that you’ll have to watch? Will you always have to be a little cautious with head injuries, or do you know, even?
It’s hard to say. I think I’ll always be a little leery about sticking my head into places where it shouldn’t be. But that’s not how you play hockey. You’ve got to go into corners and you’ve got to go 110 per cent. That’s how my hockey style is and that’s how I’m going to have to play if I want to succeed. You can’t really live in fear. I guess I’m just going to have to keep on going and hope for the best.
Any advice for people who either get concussions or the people who interact with them?
For the people out there with concussions, just don’t give up on yourselves. I know it seems hard, and it might seem pretty dark at times, but you’ve just got to battle through it and know there’s a brighter side.
And for the people dealing with them, it’s going to be hard sometimes. You can ask my parents I was pretty mouthy sometimes you just have a short fuse. But you have to realize that’s not your friend or your family member that’s just this concussion talking, not them. So you’ve just got to respect that and try and be as forgiving as you can.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 6, 2012