When we posted our 12-article series about volleyball concussions this past August (a list of all those stories follows), it struck a little too close to home for Oklahoma volunteer assistant coach Kyle Walton.
Walton, the former head coach at Transylvania College in Kentucky, moved with his wife, Lindsey, when she took the job as head coach at Oklahoma.
He was 12 when he hit his head on a gym floor. It was not a volleyball injury, but occurred after a high school volleyball match when he got clotheslined by a volleyball net. What followed was truly scary and stays with him to this day:
It was a Thursday night in October and everything was perfectly normal in our small town of Edon, Ohio. The volleyball team was preparing for its final game of the 1994 season against Montpelier, which would be the culmination of an amazing 20-0 season that had Edon ranked in the state for the first time in its volleyball history.
This is where my volleyball coaching career started.
I was 12, in the seventh grade, and my father was in his 18th year as the head girls volleyball coach. I defined the word “gymrat” and really took a liking to the sport, and was surrounded by it. My sister was sophomore playing on the varsity team. We were waiting for this season and the following two seasons for a very long time in our family, because Jaime was going to get her shot with the program that we had both grown up with.
The team won that night to get to that 20-0 mark. We had a coaches party prepared back at the house. I normally stayed with dad to close up the gym and make sure the school was good to be shut down, which also allowed me to stay in the gym and shoot hoops or hit volleyballs until my heart was content.
On this night, my two other buddies stayed with me, Griffin, who was my best friend and we literally were always together, and Bo,who was a classmate of mine and someone we hung out with.
The gym had cleared out, which allowed us boys to play a game of tag. Simple right?
But I had worn sandals for some reason that night and decided that I wasn’t as fast as I wanted to be, so I took those off to make sure I was able to speed around the gym. As we started to play I finally got tagged.
And from that point on is only what eveyone has told me, because I don’t remember anything.
Evidently, I was in the middle of the gym trying to decide which direction to go, Bo on one side of the net and then Griff was against the back wall on the same side of the net as me just a bit further away. I was looking through the net at Bo, so I didn’t exactly realize how close the net was to me. I finally had made my decision to take off to get Bo and at that very instant with one step my life got turned upside down — literally.
As I took off, my chin got caught on the bottom square of the net and I was clotheslined to the opposite side of the net.
I landed on my head near the 10-foot line.
As I lay there crying and screaming the guys came over to see if I was all right. My sister, who was just coming out of the locker room, saw that I was laying on the floor and was none to pleased about how I was acting. Griffin went to get my dad, whose office was across the hall from the gym.
My sister was standing over me saying, “Get up, you will be fine. Don’t ruin the party that is back at the house!”
My dad finally had reached the gym and got me settled down as he closed the gym and the school then we were off to the house.
After arriving at the house, they had explained to my mom what had happened and it was the second round of the not believing me/there is no way that could happen conversation.
There were about 20 people at the party and at this point, I couldn’t even sit up, my head was hurting so badly. But as it is with many head injuries, they couldn’t see a bump, a scratch, a cut, really nothing that was showing that anything was wrong with my head.
My mom said that the only thing that I was saying was “Please just let me go to bed and it will feel better in the morning.”
As I laid on the couch in the spare room I kept dozing in and out of sleep for about the first 15-20 minutes that I was home. At that point they stayed by me but still didn’t know what was wrong and then I started vomiting the corn nuts that I had before the volleyball game. (I haven’t eaten those since!)
Once I started to vomit my mom decided that they needed to take me to the hospital. And that’s one of the problems of living in a town of 1,000 people, that the closest hospital is about 20-25 minutes away.
They sat me up in the backseat of the car and both of my parents took me to Bryan Hospital, where not a whole lot of action happens on a Thursday night. By the time we got there, I had fallen over in the backseat of the car, not because I was tired, but because I was starting to become paralyzed on the left side of my body.
My dad was none too pleased about how I was acting and kept telling me to sit up because they didn’t want me to fall asleep at this point.
Once we got to the hospital, I was rushed in and my parents had called ahead to let them know that we were coming. (Of course, they called from the house, because this was pre-cell phones).
My dad had to carry me because I was literally paralyzed on my left side.
I was rushed into the ER and got CAT scans and X-rays as soon as we got in, which was a blessing. At this point, after looking back at the timeline of events, minutes were basically deciding whether I was going to live or die and none of us knew that that was the case.
The doctor saw the scans and had immediately called the LifeFlight in Toledo, Ohio, because Bryan’s hospital couldn’t handle the surgery that I was needing. I had to be transported to St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Toledo, which was about 65 miles away.
This is where I would leave my parents and at this point, they didn’t know if they would ever see me breathing again.
The doctor had explained what he had seen on the CAT scan to them, an epidural hematoma that had formed underneath my skull on the right side of my brain. Bryan to Toledo is about a 13-minute flight but was about an hour drive for my parents, who were not allowed to fly with me.
Once in Toledo I was immediately taken into surgery with Dr. Ned Lawrence, the brain surgeon that works at St. Vincent’s. My mother said that the scariest part of the entire process was when she was greeted by a hospital priest that had been expecting them. We later found out that this was standard protocol for a serious trauma victim and their families, but I can tell you this, that was not the person that my mother needed to see first when she walked into that hospital.
The surgery didn’t last very long, an hour from start to finish. Dr. Lawrence drilled four holes into my head, then removed that portion of my skull to allow access to the “Nerf-sized football” blood clot that had formed and was causing all of the issues.
The incident happened around 8:30 p.m. and I was out of surgery in Toledo around 3 am with 14 staples and 30 stitches holding my new scar together.
I had a tube that was coming out of my head to make sure there was no pressure building up and was taken into the intensive-care unit that was going to be my home for what they said was two weeks.
I finally came to after the anesthesia wore off. I actually wasn’t placed into a coma like you see on TV shows. I woke up around 3:45 a.m. and my mother was waiting by the bed and getting the full rundown from Dr. Lawrence on what he had done in surgery and explained the issues that came with this sort of trauma.
This was when we realized just how lucky we were that I started to vomit back at the house!
At that point, had I gone to sleep like I wanted to and like my parents were probably leaning towards, I would not be here today.
Dr. Lawrence gave my mom the statistic that only five percent of people survive something like this because you can’t see anything that is wrong. There was no bump or cut, just a story from two seventh-grade boys about a friend getting clotheslined by a volleyball net and landing on his head.
As I came too, my mom said she asked me what I remembered from the gym or anything that had happen and I said, “I don’t know what happened or where I’m at, but my chin really hurts!”
And at that point the disbelief in the story of Bo and Griffin was cemented in what occurred back in Edon. I also asked why it looks like I had chicken pox all over my body and more so on the left side as opposed to the right side. The doctor explained that they were pricking me with a needle in the helicopter to see what was paralyzed and what was still functioning in order to confirm things to the surgery team.
Dr. Lawrence said that I was to be in the ICU for a week and most likely would be out of the hospital in about three weeks to be sure my brain was functioning like it was supposed to.
Little did Dr. Lawrence know that I had been looking forward to seventh-grade basketball for as long as I could remember! This was the first time that I was going to be able to represent my school in organized sports and I wasn’t about to let this thing slow me down from that. With that being said, I recovered at a remarkable rate, I was out of the ICU in two days and out of the hospital in a week.
Outside of not getting the months in the correct order during the neurological testing of (my dad told them I wouldn’t know that anyway) that I had to go through a few times a day, I was passing things with flying colors and I was hearing and seeing everything that I was supposed to.
I had many hospital visitors that week as family and friends made the trip to see me and spend time, but I can’t explain how upset I was with missing the sectional final volleyball match.
The 20-0 team started their path down the state tournament just two days after that crazy night and I wasn’t going to be there for them or, more importantly, for my dad and sister. They lost to a team that we had beaten twice that year and winning seemed like a formality on the road to the state final four, and that is something I have really never let go.
You never really understand the effect something like that can have on an entire team — players, coaches, extended staff, and managers — until that balance is thrown off.
I finally got cleared to start my basketball career during the Christmas break, about two full months after the incident.
I had to make a lot of agreements with Dr. Lawrence to participate.
I had to wear a karate helmet for the first year and for baseball I had to wear a catcher’s helmet no matter what position I was playing until I was a freshman in high school.
A lot has happened since that seventh-grade year and a lot has somehow always come full circle with this head injury. When I started my collegiate basketball career (at Otterbein College) I had to list any surgeries that I’ve had. When they saw I’d had epidural hematoma brain surgery, they wouldn’t clear me until Dr. Lawrence — who I hadn’t been in contact with for five years — would sign off on me playing sports.
I also had a concussion in my collegiate basketball career that was obviously taken much more seriously than the normal concussion. And my final basketball game of my career saw me carried off a gym floor with a cheek fracture after being undercut while doing a layup.
Fast forward all these years.
The concussion series that VolleyballMag.com published hit close to home.
Like most people, I didn’t think of head injuries much in the 1990s, partly because I was young but also because I hit my head so many times playing backyard sports I didn’t think it was possible for me.
Things have changed a bit for me, I don’t get headaches very much anymore, but getting hit in the head does tend to always give me a headache. My wife would probably disagree, but my memory is still intact and I really don’t have any lingering effects from the injury.
I have changed a couple things in terms of a volleyball practice: I don’t have kids run under the net, I rarely go under the net and if I do I hold the bottom of the net, and I always have shoes on in a gym because I was in socks during the accident playing tag.
My reaction to concussions that take place on a court or when a situation arises that it is a possibility has become something that I take very seriously. I know all of the tests, I make it a point to learn all of the players on our team, so that I can tell when something just doesn’t seem right.
I have come to understand that it’s a matter of minutes that can change a person’s life in terms of a head injury, regardless of how severe or innocent.
And I know this, you can’t take things for granted.
As a result of our concussions series, VolleyballMag.com partnered with the club TAV and ImPACT Applications, an FDA-approved online baseline testing program for concussions. It costs just $5 and we invite everyone to use it.
There were also 12 stories about concussions that we encourage anyone involved in volleyball to read:
— Volleyball Concussions: “It’s scary. It’s a hard injury to deal with.”
— Now a mom, coach Corinne Atchison doing better after concussion battle
— Research and science of concussions: Diagnosis, treatment, prevention
— Three Lund sisters of Pasadena have all dealt with volleyball concussions
— Concussions: USC setter Mullahey’s career ended from hit in head
— Concussions: Blow to back of head changed Coach Joe Ziegler’s life
— Sports governing bodies have developed concussion policies, protocols
— Stetson beach player Alexa Richardson deals with impact of concussions
— UNC racked up more injuries — including concussions — than can be imagined in 2017
— Volleyball Concussions: Boys coach Rob Holley deals with after effects months later
— Concussions: Hits caused Mackenzie Jensen to lose feeling in hands, legs, feet
— Concussions: Prevention strategies from USA Volleyball’s Dr. Chris Koutures