Zac McNeese laced up his first pair of hockey skates before his third birthday. By the time he turned 7, his competitive team was traveling all over the country and being coached by former professional players. A series of concussions prematurely ended his time as a nationally ranked hockey player at the age of 14 and kept him out of school for months. Thanks to holistic care treatments through CHOC Children’s integrative health services, working in partnership with CHOC’s concussion program, Zac is back in school and getting the chance to be a normal teenager again.
Three Concussions in Two Years
Zac’s first concussion occurred during a hockey tournament in Canada. A hit to the head with a hockey stick rendered him unconscious for a short time, followed by short-term memory loss. He was taken to the nearest emergency room for evaluation. After a six-week stint out of school and sitting out of hockey for another few months, he returned to the sport he loved.
But three games into his return he suffered a whiplash-style concussion. Although this one was milder than the first, its proximity to the last injury concerned Zac’s doctors. His family was familiar with the medical benefits of acupuncture, so his parents convinced him to give it a try in hopes of relieving chronic headaches and back pain that was lingering from his second concussion.
“It took some time for me to warm up to the idea of acupuncture, but my older brother had these treatments done when he was a patient at CHOC, and I knew how much they had helped him, so I finally decided to try it for myself,” says Zac. “Over time I saw results and could feel it helping my neck and back problems.”
He began acupuncture treatments with Ruth McCarty, director of Chinese medicine and acupuncture at CHOC.
“The goal of acupuncture treatments is to improve the quality of life for our pediatric patients with diverse medical problems by providing benefits that complement their other medical treatments. Acupuncture isn’t invasive or scary, and it helps you relax.” explains Ruth. “If you can’t relax, it’s impossible to start healing your other ailments.”
The National Institutes of Health have critically evaluated clinical studies and concluded that acupuncture is effective for a variety of medical problems including management of pain and headaches, added Ruth.
Other treatment methods Zac benefitted from include massage, aromatherapy, herbal supplements, yoga and meditation helped improve Zac’s headaches and depression, says Zac’s mom Dana.
A year later Zac suffered another, more serious concussion. During a hockey game, he got hit from behind and was knocked unconscious while mid-air, then fell and hit his head. He was paralyzed from the waist down for 36 hours and doctors ran numerous tests to scan for permanent damage. After a few days of observation, he was sent home to rest in a neck brace, but wouldn’t return to school for several more weeks.
A New Normal
Zac’s care team said he could not play hockey again, for risk of future injury. The news was devastating to the young man who had given up countless social activities over the years to dedicate himself to hockey.
“When my doctors said I couldn’t play hockey ever again, at first it just felt like a break, like my season had ended and I would be back on the ice soon with my teammates,” says Zac. “But after six months of not playing, it finally hit me that I was never going back to the sport I loved and had played for almost my entire life.”
Zac struggled with chronic anxiety and bouts of depression while he dealt with this news. He also struggled with acclimating to high school. He’d been a straight-A student for years, but he now had trouble concentrating. He also experienced hyperreflexia, meaning his reflexes were overactive and his legs often twitched and bounced.
He decided to try home-schooling as he continued working on his recovery, which included more frequent sessions with Ruth and ongoing monitoring by neurologists in CHOC’s concussion program.
That break from school turned out to be as beneficial for his health as it was for his mind.
“Now I want to help other kids going through this. When I got my concussions, I didn’t know anyone else who had gone through it,” Zac says. “But I want to encourage other kids to be open minded about talking to someone about how you’re feeling, and don’t be stubborn about alternative treatments.”
To fill the void, Zac has taken up lower-impact sports like tennis and golf. He now has time to explore his new interests, like playing guitar and piano. He remains under the care of a CHOC neurologist and continues weekly treatments with Ruth.
“He’s a very resilient kid, but he wouldn’t be where he is today and be back in school without being open to alternative medicine and being able to talk to someone about his sense of loss, and how he was going to move forward,” says Dana.
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