Teacher Lisa Bond noticed with some alarm the numerous missed calls on her phone when she got out of her meeting on the afternoon of Aug. 16, 2016. Her son, Noah, a freshman at Madison County High School, was at football practice and she was headed to pick him up when she saw the missed calls. She quickly called back and was told by the coach that Noah had suffered an accident when he was tackled during practice. Although he was only a freshman, Noah was not new to the sport, having played on the regional championship team at Madison County Middle School.
Bond raced to the school where she found Noah in Coach Chris Smith’s air conditioned truck on that hot August day.
“Coach opened the door and he just kind of poured out of it like Jell-O,” she remembers. Noah had seemed fine after the fall, had told everyone he was fine, but as time went by, it became apparent that he wasn’t “fine” at all.
Bond put him in her car and raced to an Athens hospital, where he was examined and eventually admitted. She said she has often second-guessed herself about why she didn’t call an ambulance instead of taking him by car.
“He kept saying he was fine, but he clearly wasn’t, he was just ‘out of it,’ not able to focus, we just didn’t realize how bad it was at the time,” she said.
It was just one of the first of many lessons she was to learn over these past two years about dealing with a brain injury.
In fact, she learned that not even the medical community seemed to understand or recognize what was happening to her son.
“The medical community in general is often not trained or updated on the latest information to properly recognize the signs of concussion,” Bond said, adding that things could have been done that first day that would have helped Noah’s condition right away if the seriousness of his injury had been comprehended by the medical staff, but it wasn’t.
“As soon as they got his feet under him, they were done with us,” Noah’s dad Wes Bond said in a later video shot by the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF) about that first hospital visit.
CLF is a non-profit founded in 2007 that works to educate the public and the medical community about concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). It was their roundabout journey to this group and to one doctor in particular that finally got Noah the help he needed.
But that help didn’t come right away.
After they came home from that first hospital stay, they were all very discouraged. Noah had amnesia at first.
“It was such a frightening, very terrible thing because he didn’t know us and felt like a stranger to us, it was just heartbreaking to all of us,” Bond said.
Besides the memory loss, he had terrible headaches, leg pain, irritability, numbness and tingling in his legs and other symptoms.
Noah said he remembers waking up and being in pain and going to sleep in pain. At one point, he said he went into his closet and just felt so alone, he remembers feeling he’d just like to get away and for the pain to end.
“It was very hard, a very hard, trying time but it was always an honor for us to be Noah’s parents,” she said. “He felt like he was a burden to us, but we told him we would walk through this with him, no matter what, he is our son.”
Bond said she Wes and their other children felt broken and desperate.
“There seemed to be no concussion expertise in the area, or even in the state,” Bond said. They sought help at many medical facilities and kept hitting roadblocks with the lack of knowledge about concussions or their treatment.
“We felt lost with no direction, but that’s where the community really came through for us, they have no idea what they’ve done for us,” Bond said. The Madison County community, churches, local businesses and school communities all rallied around the family, helping them continue with day to day life, even as they worked to help their son.
And then there were the letters.
Noah was out of school for at least a semester and when he returned things did not go well for him in class.
“We learned later that he had gone back to school way too soon, before he was ready,” she said.
Bond cared for Noah during the day and sometimes stayed up half the night on her computer searching the Internet for answers.
“People were always telling me I needed to take some time for myself, so one day when I was out running errands I impulsively stopped at Barnes and Noble to buy myself a pencil pouch,” she remembers. Once inside, she took a moment to stroll through the store and happened to spot a book whose title grabbed her attention. It was called After the Cheering Stops by Cyndy Feasel, wife of a Seattle Seahawks player who suffered a concussion
She started to put the book back down, thinking it would have little to offer he about Noah’s condition, but the note on the back cover stopped her cold. It read, “Every parent with a child in sports needs to read this book.” She bought the book.
Reading about Feasel’s husband helped her understand more of what Noah was going through and more determined than ever to find help. Meanwhile, the stress-filled days and the helplessness surrounding them took their toll on her health too.
“I was under so much stress that I felt as if I were going to have a heart attack,” Bond remembers. She finally decided to go to her general practitioner for help.
It was an unexpected turning point, that simple visit to her GP. Her doctor listened to her carefully and surprisingly told her she needed to watch a movie. The movie was entitled Concussion and was about one doctor’s mission to help and further understand brain injuries in NFL players.
Her first thought was “I came here telling you all this and your advice is to watch a movie? What does Noah’s injury have to do with the NFL?”
But she followed her doctor’s instructions and watched the movie. It was in the movie that she first heard the name Christopher Nowinski, not realizing how important that name would become to her.
Eventually, she sat down and composed a handwritten letter to Nowinski, a former wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and co-founder of CLF, who had also suffered a concussion.
“I handwrote it because I wanted him to know it was heartfelt and real,” Bond said. Something about it must have gotten to him because to her surprise he contacted her by email.
Then they spoke by phone, and Nowinski recommended Noah see his doctor, Dr. Robert Cantu. Known as the world-renowned “concussion guru,” Cantu runs the Cantu Concussion Center in Boston, MA.
They called and got an appointment, but were assigned to another doctor at first, but Nowinski interceded and made a call to Cantu and they were redirected to have their first visit with him.
From there things began to turn around.
“The first thing Dr. Cantu gave us was hope,” Bond remembers. “After he examined him, he looked Noah in the eye and told him he would get better,” she said. “I can’t tell you how much it meant to hear those words; it was finally something to hang on to.”
Dr. Cantu explained to the family that Noah was suffering from Post-Concussion Syndrome, a little understood condition.
“All the pain we went through and here was somebody saying ‘we know what you’re doing wrong, we know how you are feeling and we’re gonna help you out,” Bond said. “That was one of those moments I remember thinking, wow, it’s been a road but we’re finally here.”
Noah began being treated by the Cantu Concussion Center following that visit.
The treatments began in May 2017, nine long months after Noah’s injury. Wes, Lisa and Noah traveled back and forth to Boston each week, leaving on Sunday and returning home to Madison County each Thursday.
HOME SWEET HOME
The weekly trips to Boston took their toll on the whole family and Bond was frequently asked why they didn’t just stay up there instead of so much going back and forth.
“The truth is we just needed to cross that Madison County line,” she said, tearing up. “It was just so good to come home. We wanted to be home, needed to just be home.”
One of Bond’s most precious possessions is a box filled to the brim with cards, letter and other tokens from that time, which she has come to think of as “the deep season” a time of great tribulation, but also a time of commitment, kindness and love.
“I know without a shadow of a doubt that it’s because of these boxes of cards and letters that we’re OK today,” she said, sinking her hands deep into the box. “I am still trying to reach out to all the people who reached out to us just to say thank you.”
There were numerous cards with money inside, many from strangers, there were letters offering prayer and encouragement, telling them of their own stories, giving them hope and encouragement with every one they read. She said she knows that many sent money who obviously didn’t have any to spare.
“People reached out to use from the depths of their hearts, people with their own hardships chose to reach out to us anyway,” she said. “There was just so much kindness, we were bombarded with it daily.”
Someone started an online prayer wall that went all over the country and beyond. “It let us know that someone was praying for Noah around the clock,” she said.
Then there was the family’s church, Crossroads Church, pastored by Rev. Morris Sapp. “They helped us in so many ways, with prayer, with finances,” she said, noting that not long after Noah’s injury the transmissions in both their cars went out and the church stepped in to assist.
There were helmet drives at football games. She was told by a stranger many months after the fact that a special prayer was held on the Elbert County campus during an Elbert/Madison football game.
“The two teams came together on the field to pray for Noah,” she said. “I was so moved by that. We had no idea. I am sure there were more things that were done that we just don’t know about and we would love to hear about them. We treasure each thing.”
Someone else started a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money.
Bracelets were made that read, “Pray for Noah, Matt. 11:24” and seemed to be everywhere they looked.
“(Superintendent) Dr. Allen McCannon wore Noah’s bracelet every day,” she said. Bond still wears hers as a daily reminder of all that was done for her family.
The Bond’s youngest son Matthew was 12 and in middle school at the time.
“So many families took him in to stay with them, comfort him, helped him with homework, took him to soccer practices and helped him stay on track,” Bond said.
She has a team picture of Matthew wearing a necklace with Jesus on it that belonged to Noah.
“He wore it constantly, taking it off only for soccer practice when another mother held it for him to keep it safe,” she said. Matthew told his mother that it was a “piece of his brother” that he could keep with all the time.
“We know in our hearts we would have lost everything if it wasn’t for the kindness of others,” she said.
As things began to settle down a little, Bond went to work on a grant for baseline brain testing for all high school athletes in Madison County that could be used to help other recognize the signs of brain trauma, even when the victim says they’re OK (a common event). She also planned to volunteer her time to do the testing and train others to administer the test if there was a question of brain injury.
Though she didn’t get the grant, she still advocates for more education and awareness about brain injury in the community and beyond. The high school has also been helping out with this by promoting Brain Injury Awareness Month in March, as well as other events, and was even recognized for its efforts on the Concussion Legacy Foundation’s Facebook page.
CONCUSSION LEGACY FOUNDATION
From Dr. Cantu and Nowinski, the Bonds learned about the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF).
Nowinski invited them to speak about their experiences at a foundation board meeting in June 2017. Bond said she remembers feeling nervous about a room filled with so many influential people.
But she and Wes kept their eyes on the main goal, which was always to get Noah better, and perhaps along the way help some other family who found themselves in their position.
CLF is a massive organization and includes partnerships with the Veteran’s Administration (VA) and Boston University (BU). Together they have a ‘brain bank’ where the brains of deceased athletes are studied for the effects of concussion and other brain injuries. The facility has the brain of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of murder and hung himself in jail just last year.
“Their mission is to be there for all athletes, not just the famous ones, it is about helping people by bringing awareness and education – including the risks involved in sports – and by developing new treatments,” Bond said.
In a September, Nowinski informed them that Noah would be one of two young athletes to receive a new award entitled, “The Resilience Award,” at CLF’s annual gala at the Boston Harbor Hotel that November.
In preparation for the ceremony, CLF sent a film crew to Georgia where they spent the day filming the family, talking about their story and about how the community had rallied behind them.
An Atlanta-based videographer who was with the CLF crew that day later told Bond that in his travels all over the state he had never heard of a community that did more than Madison County did for one of their own.
“It’s one thing for us to say it, living here, but here was someone from the outside who was struck by the force of this community’s generosity,” Bond said.
The entire Bond family attended the gala that November and made many memories, met famous people, including the gala’s MC, Robert Costas, and many former NFL players. Noah and the other recipient, a young woman, who like Noah, was recovering from a concussion, spoke to the crowd and had their stories shared on film during the gala.
“It was a wonderful experience for our whole family and along with my evening dress, I wore my ‘Pray for Noah’ bracelet,” Bond said. “Madison County goes with us wherever we go.”
Bond says she has learned much from “the deep season.” One of those things she wants other parents to know is to remember that they know their child, better than the medical community, better than anyone else.
“Don’t minimize, or allow anyone to minimize, your child’s condition, it doesn’t have to be something as bad as what happened to Noah to have an impact and be important in their life,” she said. “Trust your instincts, even against conventional wisdom.”
She’s also learned that while with most injuries young people have an advantage over adults, that is not the case with brain trauma.
“Brain trauma can affect a younger developing brain worse than an adult’s brain,” she said. “It’s one example of where being younger is not better, when it comes to brain injury.”
And she learned that by not recognizing and getting treatment for a concussion, victims are much more likely to suffer another one.
“Second impact syndrome can be fatal,” she said. “It’s not to be taken lightly.”
Today, Noah is much improved, still involved in therapy but back in school fulltime. He has recently been cleared by his doctors and therapist to play golf, and he likes it.
Noah is becoming the son they know again: loving, articulate, thoughtful, intelligent.
“He’s come a long way,” she said. “We all have.”
Noah said he is ready now to keep pushing on. “I’m looking forward to seeing where this road goes,” he said.
His mother says she will never forget the “deep season” nor does she want to — the good or the bad — because through all of the bad, there was always the goodness and the kindness of friends and strangers alike.
For more information about Post-Concussion Syndrome, go to: https://concussionfoundation.org/PCS-resources/what-is-PCS.