Year-long struggle with concussion culminates with stellar comeback

Year-long struggle with concussion culminates with stellar comeback

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Year-long struggle with concussion culminates with stellar comeback

The thud was loud enough to break through the cacophony of screaming fans in a packed gymnasium.

It was the sound of Tia Fumasoli’s head bouncing off a hardwood court.

The Pine Plains (N.Y.) basketball player leaped for a rebound and collided with an opponent. Fumasoli lost her balance and fell backwards, her body crashing to the floor, then the back of her head slammed down.

This occurred during the waning minutes of the Class C girls basketball state championship in Troy last March. A hush soon came over the audience and spectators could be heard whispering about what they had just seen, and heard.

“I’ve never seen someone hit their head that hard,” said Ashley Starzyk, a teammate and fellow senior at Stissing Mountain High School. “Just from that sound, I knew it was bad.”

It was worse than any of them could have imagined. A severe concussion caused an almost year-long nightmare that isolated Fumasoli socially and inhibited her academically. One of her doctors suggested the three-sport varsity athlete give up competitive sports altogether.

She lost more than 20 pounds. The charismatic 17-year-old suddenly became withdrawn and surly. Leisurely activities like reading and watching television became painful. Concentration became difficult and clusters of words often triggered excruciating headaches.

Tia Fumasoli (Photo: Stephen Haynes, Poughkeepsie Journal)

Pine Plains’ Tia Fumasoli takes the ball up court during a game against Ellenville on Feb. 14. (Photo: Alex H. Wagner/Poughkeepsie Journal)

A straight-A student, she began struggling with even the basic coursework. Teachers at Stissing Mountain made concessions to accommodate Fumasoli, and she found alternative methods to note-taking and study routines.

“I explained what was going on and opened up to them,” she said. “One of the benefits of (Stissing Mountain) being a small school is the faculty knows everyone, so they can tell if something is off.”

But, her grades, her spirits and her condition have all improved gradually since November, even though she still has difficulty reading for extended periods of time. And, after passing a battery of tests to gain medical clearance, she made a triumphant return to the basketball team earlier this month.

Medical studies have shown athletes who have sustained concussions are more likely to have another one. But, Fumasoli is not concerned.

“During practice sometimes I’m a little tentative and I’ll cover my head when I anticipate contact,” she said. “But in the games, (injury) doesn’t enter my mind. With the adrenaline going and being focused on winning, I just play how I normally do.”

Nightmare ends in dream comeback

Fumasoli remembers the fall she took on March 13 at Hudson Valley Community College in detail, and the pain that followed.

She sprang to her feet after about a minute on the floor and insisted to teammates that she was all right, despite holding her head. The coaches and training staff thought better of it and removed her from the game. During cognitive tests on the bench, a concussion was immediately suspected.

Pine Plains lost that game, so most of the players seemed sullen afterwards. But during dinner, Fumasoli was noticeably uncommunicative and complained of noise. That all heightened the suspicion, Bombers coach Rich Starzyk said.

Fumasoli had suffered a concussion before while playing basketball in middle school, she said. A child who was incurred that injury is almost twice as likely to suffer another, according to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. Her symptoms worsened overnight and their fears were confirmed during an emergency room visit the following day.

It typically takes about three months for an adolescent to recover fully from a concussion, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The recuperation process can last longer if the patient has a history of concussions.

It took about eight months for most of Fumasoli’s symptoms to subside. The headaches still occur, but less frequently. Finally, she said, she was able to pass the exams administered by her concussion specialist in November. That included a cognitive assessment, memory and recognition tests, and even her ability to walk a straight line.

Pine Plains' Tia Fumasoli looks to pass the ball away from South Seneca's Skylar Shaulis during the Class C New York State Championship game at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy on March 13. (Photo: Journal file)

Pine Plains’ Tia Fumasoli looks to pass the ball away from South Seneca’s Skylar Shaulis during the Class C New York State Championship game at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy on March 13. (Photo: Journal file)

Fumasoli was cleared to return to athletics only two weeks ago, almost a year after sustaining the concussion. In her second game — and first at home — she started for the Bombers on Tuesday and was honored during a pregame Senior Night ceremony. Overcome with emotion, she began crying as her name was announced.

What followed was a virtuoso performance in which the guard scored 22 points in three quarters, sending the crowd into a tizzy with four three-pointers during a 79-38 rout of Ellenville. Fumasoli also scored on three drives to the basket, each of which Ashley Starzyk admitted conjured bad memories and caused her to cringe.

The mood was celebratory afterwards, with Fumasoli entertaining teammates with dances, impersonations, and even a handstand. Quite daring, given the circumstances.

“I finally feel like myself again,” she said with a grin. “It’s been such a long time waiting and hoping for days like this, and thinking I wouldn’t experience that again.”

Pine Plains begins postseason play this week, first meeting Spackenkill in the Mid-Hudson Athletic League semifinals on Tuesday. Getting Fumasoli back now, teammate Frances Snyder said, “comes at the perfect time.”

The jubilation Fumasoli exudes now comes in large part, of course, from remembering what she endured.

A long and trying ordeal

She suffered from splitting headaches for weeks and months after sustaining her injury. Persistent nausea and lost appetite caused her to lose weight. But most disturbing, she said, was the frequent concentration lapses and difficulty retaining information. She struggled to digest even the rudimentary topics discussed in class.

Softball season began, and Fumasoli certainly wasn’t well enough to return. Perhaps she would recover in time for the playoffs, Snyder thought. Pine Plains went on to capture the Section 9 Class C title, but some teammates cried when Fumasoli informed them she wouldn’t be able to play at all, and that her symptoms hadn’t improved much by May.

“We knew it was bad, but I was hoping that things would get better over the summer,” her father, Mark Fumasoli, said. “She would have more down time and a chance to recuperate and get ready for the fall.”

By then, she was seeing a concussion specialist, making frequent trips north for appointments with Dr. Hamish Kerr, who runs the sports concussion program at Albany Medical Center.

Difficulty thinking clearly and remembering new information are common symptoms of a concussion. Concussions also have been linked to memory loss and some studies show they can eventually lead to Parkinson’s disease, Dr. Jay Alberts told the Journal in 2015. Alberts is a biomedical engineering specialist in the Concussion Department of the Cleveland Clinic.

Most of Tia Fumasoli’s free time was spent in her bedroom trying to avoid people, loud noises and bright lights. She couldn’t listen to much music, nor could she watch television for more than a few minutes. She often was listless, easily irritated and often snapped at her older sister, Marina. Those outbursts stemmed from frustration, she said.

“We tried to keep her spirits up, but that was obviously hard,” her father said. “It was a combination of her feeling terrible, not being able to have friends around, and her whole life being different.”

As parents that’s “extremely hard to go through,” he said, referring to himself and his wife Valerie.

Tia Fumasoli went with friends to the Dutchess County Fair in August but soon complained of headaches, Ashley Starzyk said.

“She was laughing and talking, things were going well,” Starzyk said, “then suddenly she’s saying her head hurts.”

It was around that time when everyone began to worry. It had been six months and progress was minimal. Fall came, and Tia Fumasoli still wasn’t well enough to play. Soccer season was wiped out. And the academic struggles continued.

“That’s what got to me the most,” said Rich Starzyk, who is also a biology teacher. “I had Tia as a student before and she’s a really smart, focused kid. To hear that she was having a hard time in class was really saddening.”

Even in math, her favorite subject, she made mistakes on basic things like subtraction. Teachers took notice. Fumasoli has a 97 average in high school so, after receiving a 63 on a science test last September, the teacher pulled her aside.

The turnaround

After a series of experiments and compromises in the fall, Tia Fumasoli’s grades eventually improved. But it didn’t come easily.

Teachers have worked with her in one-on-one settings; studying now takes longer and she designates breaks every 30 minutes; blocks of words on pages still can irritate her, so she now sometimes draws diagrams in lieu of notes. “If I can create a mind map sometimes instead of words, I won’t have to concentrate as much to get it,” she explained. She now takes notes in class on white construction paper because even the lines on standard loose leaf can trigger headaches.

“Some of my grades now are even better than before,” she said. “I didn’t have sports so I could dedicate my energy just to that, and I’m working harder because I know I can’t slack at all.”

Tia Fumasoli said the changes have even altered her college selection process. She believes a small school with intimate classroom settings — comparable to what she has at Stissing Mountain —  will be beneficial. Her family also would prefer a college relatively close to their home in Elizaville.

Mark Fumasoli said it was during Thanksgiving dinner that he noticed a major change in his daughter. She was more upbeat and talkative than she had been in months. After that, Tia said, there was considerable progress. She also regained 15 pounds.

Tia Fumasoli attended most of the basketball practices this winter to support her friends. But all the while, as she stood alone dribbling a ball on the sideline, she yearned to play.

She received clearance from her doctor, along with the approval of the school doctor, to return to basketball in early February. She made her debut on Feb. 8 at Onteora, scoring seven points off the bench.

“It was amazing to witness,” Ashley Starzyk said. “She was going hard to the basket, with no hesitation, and she even went to the floor for a loose ball.”

Mark Fumasoli said there were some hold-your-breath moments during that game, but he was overwhelmed with pride. Never did he attempt to dissuade her from returning to basketball.

“Her teammates were so excited and cheering for everything she did, that made the experience even better for us,” he said. “Thinking about how bad it was at one point, to then see that, I can’t describe the feeling.”

Pine Plains is among the favorites to win the Section 9 Class C championship. In Tia Fumasoli, the Bombers add a lethal shooter and aggressive defender capable of playing either guard position. She also is a leader whose effervescence fuels the team, Rich Starzyk said.

All that was on display against Ellenville Tuesday.

“I thought I’d never be able to compete again,” Tia Fumasoli said. “I just wanted to get on the court, even if it was for a minute. So this means the world, to feel close to normal, and be able to do normal stuff with my teammates.”

 

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Year-long struggle with concussion culminates with stellar comeback
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