CONCORD, N.H. — Brooke Mills was only 14 when she got a concussion that would shape the course of her life.
She was a high school student at Concord High School during her mandatory freshman gym class. She leaned down to pick up a ball during a game of handball, and at the same time a classmate went to kick the ball. Instead, he ended up kicking the side of her face, knocking her unconscious.
Mills said the injury erased 2½ years of her memory, and other symptoms followed almost immediately: light sensitivity, difficulty reading and staying awake, as well as mood swings and vertigo.
Mills, who is now 24, said she had to take three months off of school. She had been an A student before the accident; afterward, she struggled to maintain a B or C average in her classes, she said.
In the decade since that accident, Mills has been on a mission to raise awareness about concussions so people can recognize the signs and seek treatment.
“I just wanted to start more conversations surrounding brain injuries and how that can truly happen to anybody, anytime, no matter their age, or the things that they’re involved with,” she said.
As a competitive dancer, she hadn’t received the same education about concussions more often associated with contact sports like football or ice hockey. But, she said, traumatic brain injuries can be caused by many things, like slipping on ice or a car accident.
Anything that causes a bump, blow, or jolt to the head can cause a concussion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A hit to the body also can lead to concussion if it causes whiplash.
The CDC estimates that anywhere from 1.6 million to 3.8 million people have a sports-related concussion each year, and as many as 5.8 million people live with long-term effects from a brain injury.
It can cause complex physical, psychological, and cognitive impacts, affecting everything from mobility and strength to fatigue and memory, and leading to anxiety and depression.
About a year after her concussion, Mills worked with then-New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan to create state recognition of Concussion Awareness Day on Sept. 15. She’s still working with now-Senator Hassan, who has introduced a resolution that would recognize the day nationally.
Mills said many of her symptoms improved with time, although it took around five years for her light sensitivity to begin to ease and she was again able to run a mile. She’s still missing around five years of her memory, including most of her time in high school, and both short and long-term memory challenges remain.
She’s found ways to adapt, like by taking pictures and looking at her phone’s camera roll, keeping a calendar, and writing everything down. It’s worked for her: This spring she graduated from Sherman College of Chiropractic in South Carolina, a decision that stemmed from experiencing her body’s ability to heal from the brain injury. In May, she accomplished another goal: winning the Miss New Hampshire crown.
“I really just wanted to be able to create a community and make sure that if there was anybody else out there that felt like me, they knew that they weren’t alone,” she said.
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