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Rachel Olatunji is the epitome of a high achiever. The 13-year-old from Evanston works hard and excels in both academics and a host of extracurricular activities, including sports. But last year, Rachel faced a big challenge when she suffered an unexpected concussion in the midst of a soccer match.
It happened within the first five minutes of a North Shore Country Day School Middle School soccer game. A player collided with Rachel and a group of girls going for the ball. Rachel fell to the ground and was accidentally kicked in the head.
“I got hit really hard, right by my eye,” she recalled. “At first I couldn’t get up; I was feeling dizzy and slow.”
Understandably concerned, Rachel’s mom Christine Olatunji immediately called NorthShore Pediatrician Sharon Robinson, MD, after an athletic trainer’s sideline evaluation noted that Rachel may have suffered a concussion. Dr. Robinson rapidly made an appointment for the Olatunjis at NorthShore Neurological Institute’s Concussion Clinic with Sports Neurologist Nicole Reams, MD.
When it comes to concussion, timing is everything. Rachel was able to see a specialist within 24 hours of her injury, which made a huge difference in her recovery.
“The sooner, the better in terms of seeing a concussion specialist,” said Dr. Reams, who laments that all too often she sees concussion patients battling symptoms days, weeks or even months after the initial injury, which can threaten their recovery.
Dr. Reams performed a thorough neurological history and exam, asking Rachel about the injury and symptoms. She also reviewed her personal and family medical history—as this, too, can affect the rate of recovery. The exam revealed that Rachel suffered additional neck and inner ear injuries. “These further challenges can prolong recovery—but with Rachel, we were able to acknowledge them and begin treatment early,” explained Dr. Reams, a fellowship-trained sports neurologist who also holds an academic title at the Pritzker School of Medicine.
As a researcher and Associate Director of NorthShore’s Sports Concussion Program, Dr. Reams recently published a leading article in the Journal of the American Medical Association advocating new clinical guidelines for patients with a history of repetitive brain trauma to guide better understanding of the long-term consequences.
Path to Healing
After evaluation, Rachel was given eye and neck exercises to do at home. She also saw a physical therapist with specialized training in postconcussion recovery, including neck and balance challenges. Throughout her care, Rachel remained determined to stay on track with yearend school projects and tests. Perhaps most important to Rachel at the time was recovering fully so she could participate in an upcoming dance recital.
“Dr. Reams looked at the calendar with us and reverse-engineered what would need to happen for Rachel to be cleared in time for the performance,” mom Christine recalled. “Dr. Reams also coordinated her care with the school, dealing with clearance for gym and extra time for assignments. She could see in Rachel’s eyes just how important this recital was to her.”
“I’ve never been as dedicated to physical therapy before as I was to this,” said Rachel.
“Dr. Reams’ optimism gave Rachel confidence that she could reach her goal,” added her mom. “It was close, but she got the clearance just in time. Being able to watch her dance so beautifully was emotional.” Along with dance, Rachel also is cleared to play soccer.
“It’s so important to understand the goals of the patient and the family,” noted Dr. Reams. “My role is to keep them safe, and it’s rewarding when you can safely support their goals.”