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Battling Back from Injury: Mark's Story

It's a question many athletes have to ask themselves; should I go to the doctor? A fall or a blow may seem easy to walk off, but there could be more going on in the body than what you think. Amateur boxer and mixed martial artist Mark Allen can attest to this; he details his story of injury and recovery with the assistance of Dr. Nicole Reams and the team at NorthShore's Neurological Institute below:

To say you’re active is an understatement! Can you tell us about your activity level before your injury?
I wouldn’t say I was as active as I’ve been previously, when I was actively competing and fighting. I was, and probably still am more active than I was say, in my early twenties. I’m definitely nowhere near as active as I was pre-brain injury.

Before I started to really get concerned about my symptoms, I trained/worked out every day. I would spar with boxing and MMA in the gym roughly four times per week. Depending on those sessions and how much gas was in the tank I, or my training partners had, if there wasn’t enough for me, I would lift weights or participate in a jiujitsu class. When I wasn't training for boxing those 4 days, I would spend the other 3 days either lifting weights, conditioning or practicing my jiujitsu, all in that order of priority.

  1. Lifting weights
  2. Conditioning/Sprinting
  3. Jiujitsu

I might have a day where I didn’t do much at all, only some basic movements or active recovery techniques, even get a foot massage (they feel so good...for this barefoot athlete).

As an amateur boxer and mixed martial artist, you’re used to taking hard hits - what symptoms caused you to seek medical attention? What made this different from a typical injury?
At first, I noticed that my eyesight had changed. That was the thing, every doctor has asked if there was some “thing” or particular hit, punch, kick...incident that I can recall that caused the injury. To this day, I can’t recall anything that really took place outside of my regular sparring sessions. I guess it was when I noticed I was very sensitive to light and the sun. At one point (and still to this day), it seemed like every car had its high beam lights on when I was driving.

The sun was also somewhat bothersome. Almost as if you just came out of a dark movie theater into the beautiful, bright summer day. I thought, “Okay, well you’ve been hit in your eye area, maybe it’s time for Lasik or laser eye surgery, Mark. Let’s go see an eye doctor.”

After some unhelpful laser surgeries on both of my eyes, I decided to reach out to my orthopaedic doctor at Rush, thinking maybe something else was up, maybe a concussion or something bigger than just my eyes. Also, looking back on it in hindsight, I realize (now) that my level of patience had decreased as a result of my brain injuries/changes. At the time when I thought it was just my eyes, I was impatient and ready to go see anyone that could figure something out, or get me to where I could see again. Like I said, looking back on it, my new, decreased level of patience was something that caused me to really expedite my google searches and inquiries, ultimately finding NorthShore; it wasn’t just my eyesight. That was definitely another unnoticed symptom that led me to where I am today.

How did you find out about the NorthShore Neurological Institute? What was your impression after meeting with Dr. Reams and Dr. Rubin?
After unsuccessful and not very helpful treatment and months of waiting to see a neurologist at other Chicagoland hospitals, and through my google searches for “concussion,” “traumatic brain injury,” “encephalomalacia,”...”Chicago,” I finally found NorthShore. What was even more appealing was that I could get in to see the neurology department, and sooner rather than later. That was all this impatient dude needed.

My first interaction with Dr. Reams was helpful, and all of my interactions and communication until this point has been great. On my first visit, Dr. Reams asked me a question about headgear, and if I wore that piece of protective equipment when I was sparring. My response was a proud and resentful “No!” I have never believed in the effectiveness of headgear, and actually believed it resulted in even more brain injuries and concussions. I have a feeling my mind was playing tricks on me, but when she heard my response that I thought it was dumb to wear headgear, for whatever reason (whether true or not), I didn’t feel dumb or reckless. For an instant, I thought she might have even agreed with what I thought!

Again, whether it was just my screwy brain playing tricks on me, or if it was true, her reaction and response to my feelings about headgear, were comforting.

Dr. Rubin was just as informative, available and really friendly. At one point in my treatment, while Dr. Reams went on maternity leave, Dr. Rubin seemed to correctly step up in his care of me. I don’t know if it was he or Dr. Reams that helped me get in to see the Mayo Clinic (or both of them together), but it was Dr. Rubin that made the call to me directly and told me about the opportunity to get treatment at Mayo. That was awesome of him to do; comforting and appreciated.

Your care team consisted of both experts from NorthShore and Mayo Clinic - how did this make the treatment process for you?
I think the best answer I can give, is that I barely noticed a change in the treatment and care whatsoever. I realize they’re two separate organizations with their own separate processes, but there was nothing I noticed in the quality of care or regard for my health, especially by the doctors at both hospitals. The way I see it is this: If all I noticed was that I was in a different part of the country, and with two different looking hospitals, well then, that was all I noticed. The doctors at both places are wonderful; they’ve been helpful and accessible.

One of the most important things for me in this entire process are these words: “Now, do you have any questions for me?” (To paraphrase). From Dr. Reams, Dr. Rubin to Dr. Rodolfo Savica at Mayo Clinic, every one of the doctors has always seemed to ask me that question after every visit. Often, because I’ve just been bombarded with a lot of information, and usually an assignment to take some other tests, I wouldn't have questions at the end of an appointment. I really just wanted to go home, or straight to the appointment desk to schedule my assigned tests. What’s great is that, even after I have left the hospital, I could STILL reach my doctors through both the NorthShoreConnect and Mayo Clinic patient portals, and the doctors themselves will respond to me. It’s much appreciated that they take the time to reply to me and a host of other patients.

What changes did you notice once you started on your new treatment plan?
I think the biggest change was a new drug they have recommended (at first prescribed by Dr. Savica at Mayo). Before the drug, I constantly felt fatigued, slow to start and really get going mentally throughout the day. I tell people like this: “It takes me the entire day to get my brain “warmed up” so that I can do complex tasks or work goals.” With the new drug/treatment plan, I no longer experience this long “warm up” period.

You're still very active - what are some of your favorite ways to keep in shape?
I still box, I just don’t spar and risk getting hit in the head anymore. There’s plenty left in this art for me to learn, and I can do it working with my coach, Sam Colonna, with Sam holding the boxing mitts and working with me. I still work the boxing gym floor, hitting all of the heavy bags and using all the other tools of this craft.

I lift weights and still practice jiujitsu. I tell my clients and the athletes I coach, “MOVE….EVERY...DAY. If you don’t use it, you lose it.” So now I do the same. Plus, as I tell all the guys I coach, I’ve gotta walk the walk, don’t I? In a way, it keeps me accountable for doing activities and things I love doing anyways. So I lift weights, I practice Brazilian jiujitsu...and I sprint.

That’s right, I sprint. I run really fast, for really short distances. Then I turn around, walk back and do it again, trying to go faster. Speed kills.

What would be your advice to athletes who have a habit of playing through, or ignoring their pain/injuries?
I think a lot of my answer would depend on where the athlete feels his or her injury, what sport he or she plays, and the circumstances surrounding the injury. When it comes to the head, my immediate reaction to this point is: Don’t be an idiot, go to the doctor and ask to have neurological tests done on you. I willingly accepted the risks and knew a lot of what could happen to me when I started fighting. I still don’t regret my decision to fight and box as I did, but there’s a thin line between being a tough guy and being an idiot with less of a future in life. My advice to athletes, who actually know their bodies better than most people, is to be aware of not only what might ail them physically, but to be mindful of their emotions, motivations and intentions surrounding their sport lives.