Gary’s using ‘No Beer Year’ to warn of concussion dangers

A MULLINGAR man who was forced to make the heartbreaking decision to turn his back on the sport he loved after suffering concussion two years ago is on a mission this year to bring awareness to other athletes of how seriously they need to take the problem of head injuries.

Dietitian Gary Burke, 26, from Cullionmore was injured while playing a rugby match with Ulster University at Coleraine, and admits he had no idea that there was to be a long road of recovery ahead of him.

“I wanted to keep playing,” says Gary of the fateful match that brought to an end his promising career in the sport.

Now living in Brisbane, Australia, Gary is still dealing with the effects of the concussion. In December, in a bid to maximise his chances of putting the whole affair behind him, Gary decided to give up alcohol for a year – and is using that resolution to raise funds for the Irish Concussion Research Centre.

“It popped into my head that if I decided to maybe raise awareness of the effects of concussion and how alcohol can affect it, and I am raising money for it, that will help me stick to it longer – so I would be hitting three birds with the one stone,” says Gary who has shared his story on the GoFundMe platform.

A former member of Mullingar Rugby Club, Gary, (whose parents are Dermot and Bernadette) moved to Derry after completing his Leaving Cert at Coláiste Mhuire, in order to study dietetics at the University of Ulster at Coleraine. Two years ago he transferred to the Jordanstown campus to study for a master’s degree in sports and exercise nutrition.

In what was to prove his final game of rugby, around the end of December 2018, Gary sustained what he describes as “a couple of knocks”, but he thinks now that an accumulation of concussions over a number of seasons caused the damage.

“I went through the regular protocol of taking a week’s rest and doing light aerobic training in the second week and then back to full training – bar contacts – in the third week and it was all going good. That was during the Christmas break from university, and then after that we were back in, and that’s when all the symptoms started.

“I got daily headaches – I would have been using my laptop eight and nine hours a day because it was all online.

“I didn’t know where I was getting the headaches from but they were happening and I started off getting headaches from exercise and from the gym and I started linking that together. Then for eight or nine months after that, I started getting symptoms daily: exercise would bring it on mainly, as well as looking at screens and it would last two or three days, and those symptoms would include things like fatigue, cognitive problems, difficulty concentrating, vision problems, balance problems as well as regular headaches – and I had problems with anxiety and irritability as well. Anxiety would have been the big one.”

After nine or 10 months, Gary went to a specialised concussion clinic in Belfast and that helped him a lot.

“They did different forms of rehab with me, targeting different aspects of it, and that kind of got rid of maybe 75 or 80% of the symptoms in intensity and duration.”

That said, it has remained a concern, but Gary has managed to identify triggers – a chief one being the gym – but only if in the second half of the day. “If I have a gym session later in the evening, I will be fine that day but the next day I would have symptoms. I would have a headache – a kind of a very tight feeling in my head; I would get headaches and anxiety from looking at the screens and then difficulty concentrating as well; forgetfulness.”

Gary then began to deduce that alcohol also had a triggering effect, so he decided initially to stay away from alcohol for three months: “Then I was half considering doing a year without alcohol because I have a mate at home who did something similar and he’s doing very well since.”

He took his last drink in Christmas week, and says that while there’s a long way to go, he is motivated because he hopes it will help his recovery – plus he has the added responsibility of keeping up the commitment he has made in his GoFundMe appeal, which has raised almost €600 to date: “You kind of need an emotional reason to be motivated to change and just sustain what you are doing. I feel like if I didn’t have an emotional reason – which is trying to help my recovery from post-concussion syndrome – then I wouldn’t be able to do it. I would find it difficult. But because I know this is what I need to do, I feel it is going to be a lot easier than it could have been. “

Gary moved to Australia just after Christmas 2019 and is enjoying life there. But for the coronavirus restrictions, he probably would have returned to Ireland for Christmas. An upside of the coronavirus crisis, however, is the fact that Australia is now allowing backpackers extensions to their visas.

Gary does feel regret that he had to give up rugby, a game he played from the age of eight: “I loved it. Most of my week went towards preparing for rugby. All my personal gym work or fitness work went towards rugby. I just really loved putting everything I really could into it.

“I miss it a lot but at the same time there is a silver lining, I suppose: I get a lot more free time – I don’t have to dedicate every single Saturday to it and don’t have to go to multiple training sessions every week.

“But I did really love it and I would have loved to have been able to see if I would have been able to make it at all-Ireland level because I only ever really stuck to my university club. But when I finished university, I was planning on maybe doing something at an all-Ireland League club or something like that – but I don’t think I would ever go back because you don’t really know what damage you are doing long term.

“I have seen studies that show cognitive impairment in retired rugby players that played about 30 years ago, so there is lasting damage there.

“Concussion is an under-studied area of science. They still have a long way to go, in diagnosis, for example. All that can be done now to diagnose concussion is a doctor’s medical test but it’s not very objective. Doctors can easily miss symptoms or misinterpret symptoms, or an athlete may not display all the typical signs of concussion.

“I never had any dizziness or anything like that – which is probably one of the biggest ones – but I have other symptoms, like getting really emotional or angry or blurred vision – stuff like that, and headaches after matches and difficulty concentrating – but some of that may not have been picked up by sports doctors or physios or the likes, so it needs more objective measures or ways of diagnosing it.

“They are doing research at the moment on different sorts of tests, likes saliva- and blood-based tests. They are trying to get tests that can diagnose it in a short time, to get a sample from an athlete on the field and get it back to them, so you can make an informed and objective decision on whether the player can stay on.

“Because if it’s not diagnosed properly and the player is not taken off the pitch, they feel pressure from themselves, from their coaches, from other players to stay on and keep playing: you’re going to want to keep playing – I wanted to keep playing – but you need someone there who can stop you doing it.”

He is concerned that at lower-grade matches, there won’t typically be doctors or physiotherapists present to make the call if someone gets injured. “I read a statistic which suggests that just one in six concussions are diagnosed. The rest are missed.”

To read more of Gary’s story or to contribute, click or look him up by name on GoFundMe.

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