High school hockey player urges concussion survivors to pay attention to mental health

When the Lakeville South hockey team’s forward Zander Billins suffered a concussion more than a year ago, it ironically didn’t come from a hockey game.

"I’m lightheaded, I’m dizzy, and I’m just out of it," recalled Billins moments before he collapsed and crashed to his kitchen floor.  "All I remember is my vision just slowly, slowly going away."

His parents, standing just a few feet away, didn’t see him fall, but they sure heard it.

"The noise when a six-foot-five person hits the ground, I mean, it was just a loud scary sound," said his mother Christine Billins.

His parents rushed him to the emergency room at Children’s Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis where doctors believed Zander had passed out from a severe case of the flu.  He went home and rested for a week, but the headaches never went away.

"We went back, and they put me through more tests," recalled Zander of returning to Children’s Minnesota.  "And they’re like, ‘He’s got a concussion.’"

Traumatic brain injuries are more common than many would believe.  According to the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance, there are roughly 100,000 Minnesotans living with a TBI.  In a review of Minnesota hospital records, the Brain Injury Alliance’s Brad Donaldson says data shows an average of 20,000 concussions a year.

Zander immediately entered the concussion program at Children’s Minnesota that takes a clinical team approach to recovery and paired him with a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, and a psychologist.  Every brain injury is different, but often times the rehabilitation is incredibly difficult, even for a highly skilled athlete.

"It was not easy for me at the start because everything I couldn’t do, I used to be able to do," said Zander of the physical and occupational therapy that required him to balance on one foot.  "That’s easy for me, right?  But I couldn’t do it.  And walking backwards with my eyes closed got me all dizzy."

The loss of his physical coordination was especially worrisome because it was a set of skills that made him a high-performing hockey player. "That was what made me so angry, as it seemed so easy like I would be able to do that if I didn’t have the concussion," said Zander.

That anger and frustration became just as much of a hurdle to overcome as regaining his strength and coordination.

"No one thinks of the mental side of it," said Zander.  "And that was the hardest thing for me to come around to, is I’m not right in my head, like I need help."

That struggle is why his Children’s Minnesota care team included psychologist Kevin Coleman.  Dr. Coleman works with patients to help them focus on the immediacy of their recovery and the daily achievements and tasks—not the long-term missed opportunities and setbacks that concussions can create.

"I don’t know that everybody sees it probably quite as clearly as Zander has been able to," said Dr. Coleman on Zander’s resolve to ask for help with his mental health.  Johnson says high school survivors of a TBI, particularly student-athletes, are vulnerable to physical and emotional setbacks.

"The schooling doesn't necessarily stop when you get a concussion," said Dr. Coleman.  "Everybody else kind of proceeds with their lessons, with their social lives. Seasons carry on. And I think that presents some unique challenges for a student and especially student-athletes within the context of a recovery from a concussion."

That’s where the clinical team approach and especially the mental health counseling can help get adolescent concussion survivors back on their feet faster.

"I think that's a huge part of somebody like me and my role in our team is to be able to kind of emphasize a sense of hope," emphasized Dr. Coleman.  "We know that there's in general, a predictable course of a recovery for concussion and that if we do take our time and really focus on doing each of the steps carefully, that we see good outcomes."

Zander’s parents shared the same concerns as their son, but say they were reassured from the moment they met Zander’s care team.

"I will not forget when we sat down that very first appointment and she told us we're going to be we're going to get him back," recalled Christine.  "That was like the biggest relief because we didn't know."

After a year of rehab and work, Zander’s story, which began on his kitchen floor, recently achieved success when he skated with Lakeville South hockey team in the state tournament in St. Paul.  The team lost in the first round, but Zander takes stock of what he won—his ability to come back and skate again.  And with it, a solid list of advice for any other student-athlete who faces a comeback from a brain injury.

"First off, it's not easy," said Zander.  "You can't just act like you're fine, and you're going to go back because you're going to realize you're not the same player I used to be. It's okay. You're going to get through it. You're going to have to put in your work.  It's not just going to come back super easily and just be patient with yourself."