Coming Back After Concussion: Nolan’s Story
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Growing up, Nolan and his brother loved watching sports on TV and acting out the plays in their living room. In a few months, Nolan may be one of those professional athletes on TV – playing baseball in the Major Leagues for the Cleveland Indians. It’s a feat made possible by Nolan’s drive and natural athleticism, a head injury at 14 that prompted a switch from hockey to baseball, and the top-notch concussion care he received at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Nolan grew up as a self-described “sports nut.” From 1st to 8th grade, his life was broken down by sports season – ice hockey in the winter, baseball in the spring and summer, then football each fall.
While he loved it all, hockey was his favorite – and as a 14-year-old high school freshman, he qualified to play for Team Comcast, a AAA club team based in Pennsauken, NJ. The team competed all over the country and was ranked as one of the best club teams in the nation – a point Nolan still takes pride in. But one day his hockey career came to a screeching halt.
“I went to check someone, but they ducked,” Nolan says. “I flipped over them and hit my head hard into the boards (that surrounds the rink). It really shocked me. I got dizzy, then went to the sit on the bench to catch my breath.”
His coach, Keith Primeau, a former Philadelphia Flyers player who retired from the National Hockey League due to concussions, encouraged Nolan’s parents to get him examined by a physician as soon as possible. Primeau recommended the family talk to Christina L. Master, MD, FAAP, CAQSM, FACSM, a sports medicine pediatrician and world-leading concussion specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, not far from the family’s home in Langhorne.
Most youth who suffer concussions will recover on their own, usually within one month of their injury. However, about 30 percent of youth will go on to suffer persistent post-concussive symptoms for an extended period of time – months or more. Nolan was headed down this path of a longer recovery.
Nolan’s parents took him to Dr. Master at CHOP, who confirmed Nolan suffered a concussion and recommended treatment, including a period of initial brain rest, avoiding things like TV and electronics that might make his symptoms much worse. At first, following the doctor’s orders was extremely difficult for the teen who rarely stopped moving.
“I don’t remember much initially after my concussion,” Nolan says. “I had a headache nonstop and that made me very grouchy. I remember going to bed and hoping my head wouldn’t hurt the next day. And the more I tried to do things, the more my head hurt.”
At follow-up visits with Dr. Master, Nolan and his mom talked about his symptoms and what made them worse. Dr. Master said Nolan was having a lot of symptoms because he was pushing himself to do more than he was quite ready for. He needed to slow down a bit and let his brain catch up and heal.
Eventually, Nolan returned to school part-time and begin rebuilding his brain’s endurance. After six weeks, he was able to return to school fulltime.
“The headaches went away slowly,” Nolan says, “but would quickly return with a vengeance if I did something too long – like reading for my English class.”
Nolan also received visual, vestibular and psychological therapy to help him heal. Within six months of the accident, Nolan began to finally feel like himself again – and was excited to get back on the ice.
While Nolan was making progress in his therapeutic regime, he was cleared for aerobic exercise like running or skating and to participate in lower-risk sports like baseball, but not collision sports with full-contact checking, like hockey, yet. Nolan was devastated. During that time, his parents said he had a choice to make: focus on the fact that he couldn’t play hockey just yet, or switch his focus to baseball – which he was cleared to play.
“They helped me see it as an opportunity,” Nolan says. “I started going to the batting cages more. Throwing more. Working out more. Baseball became the No. 1 thing on my mind all the time.”
Nolan played baseball for Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem for three years and committed to play for the University of Virginia when he graduated high school. But because he was improving so much, Nolan decided to take a shot at playing in the Big Leagues.
In June 2016, Nolan was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the second round (No. 55th overall) of the Major League Baseball Draft. He was offered a signing bonus and full scholarship to delay college. His scholarship fund from the Cleveland Indians will remain in place for 10 years after he retires from baseball.
For now, Nolan is only thinking about playing in the Major Leagues. He’s spent the past four years training on the Indians minor league teams, playing third baseman. And in late 2020, he received the call he was hoping for: an invitation to join the Indians’ 40-man roster for Spring Training.
In January 2021, Nolan joined the team in Arizona for pre-camp prep, and will remain there for when Spring Training officially starts in February. He’s hoping to impress the coaches enough to earn a spot on the Indians’ full season roster of 26 players.
“I’m thankful to Dr. Master and CHOP for helping me recover from my concussion – even on days when I didn’t believe I ever would,” Nolan says. “Today, I couldn’t be doing better: I’m doing what I love. I get to play baseball every day. My family is healthy and I have a great support system.”
“Nolan’s story is a great example of how our patients navigate the sometimes-complex path to recovery when it is longer than usual, and not always straightforward. Our Minds Matter Concussion Program has continued to evolve in the years since Nolan’s concussion injury, treatment and recovery. We continue to work to improve concussion care for all children through research into the active management of concussion, to push the envelope on how early a concussed athlete can safely do aerobic exercise after their injury, and to understand the role of active rehabilitative approaches in vestibular and vision therapy for those with persistent concussion symptoms.
Breakthroughs in concussion identification, treatment and recovery are being continuously translated into improving concussion care at CHOP – thanks to our research partnership with our patient families.”