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The Road to Recovery

November 21, 2010
By Jeremy Behnke, Journal Sports Editor

NEW ULM - Like a lot of teens, Corey Plath had big dreams of one day going to college and possibly even pursuing athletics while doing so.

But Plath's post high school life has taken a different route of sorts, one that he can't control on a daily basis. For the time being, he's working at McDonald's and trying to get out and do things that most people his age take advantage of without giving it a second thought. For now, his college plans are on hold (he's decided he wants to attend college this January) and his dream of one day playing college soccer is pretty much over.

Plath has suffered four concussions since his sophomore year of high school. The post-concussion symptoms that he's had to deal with have been a nuisance, and there are times he can't control the symptoms.

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Sport Pix

Corey Plath plays soccer for New Ulm with a protective headband.

Plath's life took a turn while he was a sophomore at Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School. In February of 2008 while playing basketball for the B-squad, Plath went up for a rebound and came down with it. In that motion, his head collided with another player's head and he fell and hit the ground, hitting the back of his head hard on the court.

At that moment, he had a concussion, and he sat out for a few weeks before getting cleared by a doctor to get back on the court.

But in his next game back, not more than five minutes passed before he hit his head on the floor again, giving him a second concussion in about a month.

While it may have appeared to be just a couple of players hitting the floor to the casual observer, it was much more than that.

Plath said that he did talk to doctors at the New Ulm Medical Center and everything was a go for him to continue playing before the second incident.

"We knew that it was one of those situations where we didn't want to mess around with," he said. "We took the advice and waited a week until after the symptoms were gone, but it was one of those things where it was kind of a fluke happening. We took precautions and I only played the last five minutes of the second half and it happened in the last minute of the game. Chances are, it wouldn't happen, but it just ended up happening."

The symptoms that he had for the first two concussions were pretty much the same. Plath said he had a severe headache in both cases and he was also dizzy. Although he was aware of his surroundings most of the time, he had difficulty focusing on some of the little things.

"I knew where I was but I wasn't fully there I guess," he said. "I wasn't very fully functional and I was out of it and I guess you can say I had migraine-like symptoms that light was bothering me and noise."

He also said that his reflexes had slowed down quite a bit and on top of the headaches, it became very frustrating for him.

Because it was close to the end of the season, Plath didn't play anymore basketball during his sophomore year. He continued to see a doctor in New Ulm and he also saw a neurologist at Immanuel St. Joseph's Hospital in Mankato. All of this was done to continue to monitor his health and also for him to continue playing soccer, which was his favorite sport in high school.

"We wanted to make sure that he would be OK to play soccer," Corey's dad Tim Plath said. "He liked basketball, but soccer was really the sport he wanted to play and we wanted to make sure he was OK to play summer soccer. Each time before he was able to play, we got doctor's approval to play."

For summer soccer after his sophomore year, he had to wear protective head gear. He went his whole junior year of soccer, basketball and track and field without suffering another concussion. He didn't have any symptoms from the concussions other than the headaches, which were still really bad at times. To this day, he still gets the headaches.

He said he uses Tylenol and Ibuprofen to treat the headaches as well as ice and heat and he used that on the area of impact. Even though he was cleared to play sports again, he didn't want anymore repeat occurrences.

"The doctors didn't say that I had to take any precautions, but I did just from the fact that I had headaches still," Corey Plath said. "I just wanted to be careful, but I also heard that if you get one concussion, it's easier to get another one."

He changed some of the things he did on the soccer field to minimize the chance that he'd get another concussion.

"I was careful with playing soccer, especially with trying to head the ball," Plath said. "I would trap it with my chest or use my body rather than using my head, just so I could have that extra precaution to try to minimize the injury."

But during his senior year, Plath endured more bumps in the road and that got him to the point to where he is now.

He suffered his third concussion early in the soccer season at the Mankato Loyola Tournament. This time though, it came on a play where he may have been somewhat at fault.

"It was one of my dumber moments, the goalie had punted the ball and it was high in the air," Plath said. "There was an attacker right next to me and I didn't want him to get the ball so I jumped and I headed the ball and right away I felt dizzy and I really couldn't open my eyes and I wasn't able to see anything. I kind of blacked out, but I stayed in and I noticed that there was something wrong because my reflexes were a little bit slow and my vision wasn't as good."

He stayed in the game because another defender on the team was sidelined with a broken toe, but he said he knew right away after the game that he had a concussion.

The trouble for Plath didn't end there. In his team's final game of the season during a playoff game at Willmar, he again suffered another setback.

He was running toward the ball and one of their attackers came up behind and tripped him. His head hit the ground and he was pulled from the game. The result from the fall was his fourth concussion in less than two years.

His high school soccer career was over at that point after his team lost. At that point, the concussions had begun to take their toll on him. He recovered from that fourth concussion rather quickly, but in January of 2010, he began to get headaches so bad that he couldn't leave his room.

"He was having headaches so bad that they prevented him from going to school, and he had to quit playing trumpet in band and drop the class and had to stop working at McDonalds," his dad said. "He did all of these things because of the sensitivity to light and sound. He spent a good share of second semester either in his room or in the basement because he couldn't tolerate light or sound."

Once again, he went to ISJ and he was told to see a specialist at the Mayo Clinic.

There, he had a spinal tap, an MRI, a brain scan and a number of tests. He still had the ringing in his ears and he couldn't sleep at night, so he was given medication.

A neurologist at Mayo then suggested that he try a special pain rehabilitation center, which was available at the Mayo Clinic.

There, he started a program designed for people with chronic pain, like the after effects of concussions. He started that program on October 11 and it was a three-week program. He's now done with the program and has another check-up in January.

The program taught him to keep going out and trying to live a normal life and not to let the concussion symptoms get him down. He had to find ways to cope with the problems, whether it be by going out and exercising or just going outside in general like he'd normally do. There were times where the pain was too much to deal with, but overall, he developed a better attitude and that helped deal with the pain that he was going through.

"I really wasn't able to do a whole a lot, just staying in my room or staying in the house, I wasn't able to go out or anything like that," Plath said. "When this opportunity came up where I could go to this pain clinic, I was able to go out and stuff on a regular basis, which was great to be able to do. It was something that I missed a lot."

He said he still has the headaches and the pain does come back from that.

"One of the stressors there was no matter how bad you feel, you need to get out of bed everyday," he said. "If you stay in bed for a day, you actually take two steps back so you need to keep going everyday."

Some of the other pain management techniques he dealt with include pain management and 10 minutes a day of deep breathing.

Another technique was modifying how he did normal things throughout the day. If something was too tough to handle, he'd try to break it up and accomplish it in pieces. The exercises were designed focus on the muscles, both tightening and relaxing them, and just relaxing the whole body.

Without a doubt, the concussions caused a lot of frustration for him. He knew he wanted to be out and about with friends and family, but he was limited to staying inside and away from light and noise at times because of the pain.

"There was quite a bit of frustration," he said. "It was kind of like 'oh no, not again.' But it's one of those where you gotta except it and you gotta keep going. You gotta take the right measures to get back out there again, and being the athletic kid that I was, I wanted to keep playing again."

And as tough as it was to give up playing sports, it was also tough thinking at point in his life that he may not be able to attend college because of the symptoms.

The battle wasn't only difficult for Corey. His parents also had a tough time dealing with all of the pain he was going through.

"Early on, I think that was the time of greatest challenge," Tim Plath said. "From a parent's stand-point, when your child is hurting, you don't want them to hurt anymore. When you're dealing with something like a headache, you think 'how can I help my son feel better?' But the support we've received along the way, whether it was from family or friends or through MVL or the various medical people we worked with, it always seemed like there was another thing that we could try that would work."

For Plath, the battle is ongoing. But his progress is evident in that he now has more pain-free days and he's working on attending college this upcoming January. He'll be attending Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee.

And although they may seem like small steps, they may finally lead to a clear path for Plath and his family.



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