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Concussion Confusion: Alumna's Injury Leads To Improved Treatments

Written by Emily Hull

Jessica Schwartz '05 in New York City. Photo by Adam Baker

You usually hear about concussions in connection with sports, like professional football.

In May 2014, the NCAA even announced a $30 million effort to fund the most comprehensive clinical study of college athletes and concussions. But concussions don’t happen only to athletes. They can happen to anyone at any time. Just ask Jessica Schwartz ’05. One day she was going about her usual routine when she was rear-ended in a minor fender bender. That fender bender gave her a concussion that took her out of work for 14 months and put her on the path to being one of the most vocal advocates for post-concussion care in the physical therapy profession.

"Sports are the sexy thing,” Schwartz said. “But motor vehicle collisions are a more common source of concussion and traumatic brain injury than sport-related concussions.”

At IC, Schwartz was an exercise science major who was a part of the founding and coaching of the women’s club basketball team, was a part of bringing group cycling classes to the Fitness Center, and taught a ’70s disco spin class in the Robert R. Colbert Sr. Wellness Clinic. After IC, she received her doctorate in physical therapy from Dominican College’s weekend program while working full-time as a personal trainer. By August 2010, Schwartz had landed her dream job at a physical therapy clinic in northern New Jersey. She had just completed her clinical residency in orthopedic physical therapy as part of the inaugural program at New York University.

Jessica Schwartz '05 discusses how she’s bridging the gaps in concussion treatment to help patients like herself.

But on October 3, 2013, things took a dramatic turn when Schwartz was rear-ended at a stoplight in Manhattan. There was no real damage to her vehicle, but she didn’t feel quite right and decided to go to the emergency department via ambulance just to be on the safe side. After a negative CT scan, Schwartz was informed she had suffered a concussion based on her symptoms of dizziness and headache. She was sent home and figured she’d be ready for work the next day. After a week of excruciating migraines and vision problems, Schwartz realized the severity of her injury was much more complex than she had originally thought. She went to see a specialist and was diagnosed with convergence insufficiency, meaning her eyes weren’t working together. Doctors prescribed multiple heavy-duty medications for her, but Schwartz felt that she was being medically mismanaged and reached out to the New York University Concussion Center for assistance.

There she became a patient for 10 or more hours a week for the next year, undergoing various types of therapy, including vision, occupational, physical, speech, and neuropsychology. During this time, she decided to start her blog, PT2Go, to initiate concussion conversations that bridge the gaps between patients and the health care community. She began working part time, but the information she was posting in her blog was getting noticed and other opportunities started rolling in.

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) noticed a post Schwartz had published about the Choosing Wisely campaign, a worldwide initiative to improve health-care quality between physicians and their patients. The article was shared and commented on, and the APTA reached out to Schwartz, telling her that her work exemplified the organization’s mission. They offered Schwartz the position of spokesperson for the organization, and she accepted.

Test your own concussion knowledge.

On April 1, she also began a position as program director at Evidence in Motion, a knowledge exchange studio providing training, research, and resources to practicing physical therapists. Schwartz is currently creating the world’s first yearlong, post-professional, multidisciplinary concussion certificate program. The goal of the program will be to educate healthcare professionals about how to identify, treat, and manage the concussion patient while facilitating collective competence across the entire health care community.

Schwartz said she will use her story, as well as the stories of others, to change the conversation surrounding post-concussion syndrome patients.

“I had wonderful therapists who used a kind and supportive approach to holistically help me return to my daily life,” she said. “That’s really going to be the central tenet of me speaking publicly about this.”

Schwartz said Ithaca College gave her the skills she needed to share her message.

“IC prepared me to be a voice for the underserved by fostering such an all-inclusive environment,” she said. “I stayed an extra year at IC to take time to cultivate skillsets that would set me up for success in my career. I believe this extra time coupled with the supportive faculty environment— including my advisors John Sigg '98 and Betsy Keller—were the stepping-stones for my future success. I left IC and two weeks later started my educational journey [toward a doctorate in physical therapy].”

Schwartz is excited to share her story and be able to represent a profession she is so deeply invested in and connected to.

“I look forward to teaching differently and inspiring future doctors to be the best they can possibly be with respect to concussion identification, treatment, and management,” she said. “I hope that by harnessing the power of storytelling, coupled with evidence-based medicine, my colleagues across all fields of medicine will be able to break down stigmas, understand, and help this often mismanaged patient population of postconcussive survivors.”




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