From accident to advocate
A life-changing brain injury set this teen on a path to changing lives and raising awareness
Brooke Mills could never have imagined that a routine school gym class in March 2014 when she was 13 would change her life dramatically. Yet the injury that resulted, as well as a prolonged recovery, would not only alter her life, but would also lead to new experiences as a national speaker and advocate for concussion awareness.
Now 18, Mills’ journey to wellness is ongoing, and the progress she’s made so far has been hard won.
It began with a class game of team handball, she said, which combines aspects of basketball and soccer to allow players to score points.
“As I went to pick up the ball, a classmate attempted to kick the same ball as I was reaching for it, resulting in the impact that caused my concussion,” Mills said. Her head received the brunt of the kick and she was knocked backward, unconscious on the floor.
In the aftermath of the concussion, Mills felt tired a lot, even falling asleep in school.
“For the first few weeks after my impact, I slept a lot,” she said. “I experienced bad headaches, dizziness and light sensitivity. I was extremely forgetful – I would walk upstairs and forget what I had gone up to my room for.” Her personality changed and her family told her she had become moody.
Suddenly the “A” student had problems learning and difficulty with memorization. She struggled to keep up with studies because reading and using a computer made her headaches much worse.
“Some of my teachers weren’t understanding when my symptoms lasted past a few months,” said Mills.
For the first two weeks after the injury, Mills was out of school completely, returning to class just part time after that.
“I would attend half of a class period and then rest in the nurse’s office,” she said. “I had to drop out of the physical education classes that I was injured in and instead took an online version through VLACs to graduate. I also used an old-fashioned typewriter to get through my keyboarding class since I couldn’t use a computer screen.”
While her family doctor had diagnosed the concussion and had been of great support in assisting with the accommodations made at school, he initially thought her symptoms would last 7-10 days.
“As the months passed by and my symptoms persisted I was referred to a local concussion specialist,” Mills said. “My family and I were really disappointed by the specialist, who after a quick examination wanted to write me prescriptions for Alzheimer’s medication (for my memory), a pain killer (for my headaches), an ADHD medication (to help my learning) and a depression medication because, surely, I was sad about losing my normal life.”
Her family began looking for alternative care for Mills. “We knew I needed to find a way to heal my brain, not just the symptoms of the injury,” she said.
“I flew to Atlanta, Ga., for two separate weeks of holistic concussion therapy. I also sought ongoing treatment from two different naturopaths in New Hampshire and Dr. Scott Krauchunas of InFocus Eye Center in Belmont. And, of course, my mom (a chiropractor) adjusted my spine regularly.”
While the physical injury and symptoms were difficult to bear, the emotional and psychological effects of the injury were substantial as well. Mills said it was really hard overall.
“I lost a lot of my friendships and felt secluded, especially in the first few months after my injury,” she said. “Since I lost a lot of my long-term memories and my personality changed, I don’t think my friends knew how to connect with me. I also lost my ability to dance, which meant I became disconnected from a whole group of girls I had grown up with.”
Special ‘goggles’ simulate the effects of a concussion.
It’s especially hard to deal with physical issues that others can’t see. “Just because a person who has suffered a concussion looks fine on the outside it doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting,” Mills said. “I can’t tell you how many people said things to me like ‘you look fine’ or ‘you’re just faking to get out of schoolwork.’
Other peers who had experienced a concussion thought I should ‘suck it up’ or didn’t understand why I wasn’t fully recovered weeks later. In high school, I definitely felt bullied by the remarks of my peers.”
As alone as Mills might have felt at times, she would soon learn how many others were out there experiencing much of what she had been through. It all came about through an organization that had proved beneficial to her in the early days of her injury: the Brain Injury Association of New Hampshire.
When she first reached out, “they really helped educate me about concussions, gave me resources and the support my entire family needed,” Mills said. “As I healed, a representative of their organization suggested that I be a peer-to-peer presenter at schools for concussion awareness.”
After her first presentation, she was shocked by how many students came up to her to tell her that they could identify with her experiences. “Many thanked me and said they had felt alone in their injury,” said Mills. “Others told me that I gave them hope for recovery. Some thanked me for helping them understand how to be a supportive friend.”
Mills created Lessen the Impact®, noted on her website as “a volunteer program to increase concussion awareness through education, support of research initiatives and charitable programs, while giving hope to those affected by mild traumatic brain injury.”
She has presented at Sanborn Regional High School, Rundlett Middle School, Sant Bani Elementary School, Winnisquam Regional Middle School and the State University of New York, Cortland campus. Mills has also spoken in a variety of platforms, from public forums and events to the media.
Brooke speaks to NH1 News about the inaugural National Concussion Awareness Day in September 2016.
“Most recently, I’ve concluded my speaking engagements with an interactive opportunity for the students; trying to walk a straight line while wearing ‘concussion goggles,’” she said. “These goggles simulate the visual and balance effects when you have a concussion, which is surprising to experience for many!”
It’s her hope that these presentations help educators and kids better understand how to support classmates and students dealing with a concussion. She also wanted to share what she had learned about concussions, living with a brain injury and how to heal naturally.
Mills also founded National Concussion Awareness Day, which is recognized on the third Friday each September.
“This year, I’ve partnered with the Brain Injury Association of America to promote concussion awareness nationally through social platforms, educational events, fundraisers and the media on Sept. 15.”
Mills is a lot better these days than she has been, she said. She remains hopeful in spite of the challenges she continues to face.
“Overall, life is tougher than it used to be. It takes me longer to learn. I have to work harder in school for good grades than I used to. I still get headaches when I exercise and I haven’t been able to return to dancing,” she said. “At times, I also have trouble with word recall, which can be difficult in public speaking-type situations.”
But she focuses on the positives. “One positive is that I’ve learned how to sing; vocal performance has replaced dancing as my performing art of choice,” Mills said. She also has learned of coping tricks. “I try to stay well-rested, do my best to avoid fluorescent lighting and wear sunglasses if I’m feeling light-sensitive.”
photography by kendal j. bush
After a freak accident in gym class at age 13 changed her life, Brooke Mills of Concord made it her goal to educate people about concussions. She speaks often at local schools about her journey.
She is optimistic that she’ll continue to improve, “but I’m doubtful that I’ll ever get back the childhood memories that I’ve lost,” she said. “Advocating for concussion awareness has been a huge part of my emotional healing. Knowing that someone else can benefit from what I’ve learned helps me see the brighter side of my injury.”
Mills is already pursuing her career path, perhaps not surprisingly in a health-oriented field. Growing up in what she calls “a natural-minded family,” she thought everyone looked at health issues in a holistic way.
Thrust into a world of medical treatment made her focus on the differences between healing and hiding symptoms.
“The holistic doctors and their approaches of nutrition, vision therapy, hyperbaric oxygen, holistic IV therapy and chiropractic adjustments have inspired me to pursue a similar path,” Mills said. “Right now, I’m working on my associate degree in health science at New Hampshire Institute of Technology; then I work towards my bachelor’s and then eventually my doctorate in chiropractic degree.”
Pamme Boutselis is the mom of four now-grown kids, a serial volunteer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @PammeB.