House Call: Curl Smarter – Consider a Helmet

For Cheryl Whitnack curling will never be the same – and neither will her life. After suffering a traumatic brain injury in January of 2011 during her weekly mixed curling game, Whitnack has decided to share her story in hopes of encouraging safer curling and perhaps preventing injury in someone else. Friday January 21, 2011 arrived just like any other day. Whitnack was midway through her game when when tragedy struck. “I went down horizontally and hit the ice hard with my head, bounced, and hit it again… someone five sheets over said they could hear my skull crack,” states Whitnack. Whitnack doesn’t remember what happened because the impact of the fall caused amnesia from about 15 minutes before the fall to 15 minutes after. “I have no recollection of what happened,” said Whitnack. She has managed to piece together the night’s events by talking to those who were on the ice, the EMS, and the staff at the curling club who responded to the injury. Whitnack’s first recollection after falling is laying on the ice and asking another curler, who was holding her head still, if she had fallen. At that point she didn’t feel fearful of her injury, “I thought, wow, I’m handling this really well.” Soon EMS came and took her to the hospital. She was bleeding from the head and had pain in her skull as well as in her arm. At first when she got to the hospital they stitched her up in non-urgent care. Then one of the nurses noticed both of Whitnacks’ eyes had begun to turn black with bruising quite rapidly. She was soon sent for a CAT scan where it was discovered that she had a Basal skull fracture, which is bleeding around the brain in the tissue of the subdural space. Doctors decided to keep her overnight because they were concerned about the blood building up in a pocket. If that happened they’d have to drill a hole in her skull to relieve the pressure. Fortunately this wasn’t necessary but they did admit Whitnack to the neurology unit and keep her for six additional days. Her time in the hospital was spent suffering from violent headaches, weakness, vomiting, fatigue, and severe pain. She still suffers from some of these symptoms to this day. Aside from the head injury, Whitnack has also sustained an injury to her right arm. Blood ran down the subdural space from her brain and along the brachial plexus in her right arm. This causes her arm pain and weakness even now. Whitnack also suffers from some short-term memory loss. “I have trouble learning new things.” “Those few seconds changed my whole life,” said Whitnack, who used to work as a home care nurse, “I haven’t been able to go back to work.”

Wearing a helmet on the ice is a good idea for any curler of any age (Photo courtesy M. Cooper)

This January Whitnack returned to the curling ice to give curling another try. This time she took no chances. She armed herself with a halo-style curling helmet and she would recommend this piece of equipment to anyone and everyone. Whitnacks’ argument in favour of helmets is simple, “Do you value your brain? Because in a few seconds your life can change.” Whitnack wishes she had thought to purchase a helmet prior to her injury, “I knew of head protection (for curling) but I didn’t pursue it.” She hopes to see helmets become more and more common place in the future especially for people with balance problems, new curlers, young curlers, and fearful curlers. “We are going to have slip/fall accidents but what can we do to prevent them?” asks Whitnack. She firmly believes helmets to be an important part of the solution. Something else she found helpful was taking time to get back on the ice prior to getting into a game situation. Whitnack is a curler at the Calgary Winter Club and she decided to call me up for a little support getting back out there. We chose a time when there wouldn’t be too many people around to watch her. Instead of jumping right in and starting to throw rocks we took things very slowly. We started off walking to the far end and back with grippers on. I stayed close just in case she felt nervous. We then slid to the other end and back to get comfortable on the slider again. Once we finished with that we moved on to rocks. Whitnack claims this extra time spent getting reacquainted with the ice was incredibly helpful. Taking things slowly was very important. The sleek black halo-style helmet covering the sides and back of her head has garnered notice from her fellow curlers. She is the first in the league to wear such a thing but she, hopefully, won’t be the last. “I’ve had lots of good feedback on the helmet and it feels very normal to be back on the ice.” With support and encouragement from friends, family and other curlers Whitnack will continue with the sport she so enjoys.