On Sept 7th 2015, Labor Day, I was out surfing alone. I had a catastrophic, life-changing surfing accident off the coast a remote part of Big Sur California. I was surfing but got flipped over and hit the crown of my skull on a submerged rock. I sustained a traumatic head injury, and broke my neck in four places from a direct impact. I was barely conscious, in shock, and suffered a massive Traumatic Brain Injury TBI (concussion). I knew my neck was broken. It was “do or die”. I could not safely land there. I had to swim back out into and then out of the impact zone to save myself and a bit up the Coast. I made it to shore by a miracle, somehow hiked out and got myself to the ER.
This story is how I have slowly painfully healed – and, if you have a head injury, how you can heal too.
First let me give you some context to the nature of head injury. I had been surfing the largest waves in the world, including Mavericks, along with the world’s best Big Wave surfers for 10 years. The waves at Mavericks in Northern California average 40’ when it breaks. It’s my favorite wave. A wipeout from a heavy wave like that will certainly give you a concussion. But you may not feel it. None of my friends or peers knew this. Being drenched in adrenaline is a great antidote for being ‘dazed and confused’. The two physical effects sort of balance each other out, on any given day. And we do not all sustain a big wipeout every day. Without being aware of it, as I matured as a Pro Surfer, I was stacking up an accumulation of minor and more serious concussions. Pro Surfers in general look and are amazingly fit. Anybody who wants to be great in our sport accepts a lot of wipeouts as the price you pay for becoming truly good. I’d say now I was slightly aware of some damage to my brain and health, but I wasn’t focused on it – or ready to face it.
The reason my Traumatic Brain Injury TBI at Big Sur was so bad was not only hitting the rock – with the broken neck vertebrae. It was that all the Big Wave concussions I had sustained before had compromised the overall integrity of my brain. This injury was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was unaware of the overall damage until I got what is called a SPECT brain scan. A SPECT brain scan, unlike an MRI or a CT scan, shows you areas of your brain than are inactive due to prior damage. Areas of previous concussions look like black holes where the where the brain activity has gone dark.
After the Big Sur injury I had been resting at home undergoing a truly wild and frightening set of symptoms that are common to brain injury. Three months post-injury, (a time period which also included my doing the paddle out for the Titans of Mavericks 2016 ceremony) I had my neck brace removed. I was severely concussed and I knew it. My protocol from the doctors was “rest, relax and avoid screens”. Interpersonally I was off balance. Socially I was off balance. My brain was a scrambled fog of random and uncontrollable thoughts. My emotions were all over the place. I was a radically different person. All the guys knew me from “before”. The hardest part was that with my brace off I looked ‘fine’, but internally I was a broken person. No one understood. The passion and intensity of Big Wave Pro Surfers is like no other culture. There was this huge positive encouragement that very soon I would rejoin the lineup and go back to hard charging. Even my wife was having a hard time with me and her patience was running out. I did not know it at the time but Clinical Depression is a very common outcome of head injury. Your thoughts and emotional stability depend upon a delicate balance of brain chemistry. An injury creates all sorts or toxins and dead cells inside of the brain – inside the skull - and these substances that distort your thoughts take a very long time to clear out. I had a very young family to support. I was used to a certain amount of local fame, a high level of athletic prowess and top professional performance. I could not even work. I felt overwhelmed by almost everything. I would have uncontrollable outbursts where I yelled at my wife and kids for the smallest things. I became suicidal, because of the anxiety about money and the future – and especially not knowing if I would recover, or be permanently brain damaged. I learned later this is actually ‘normal’ for head injury patients. Suicidality is quite common. But at the time I did not know. And I don’t think knowing ‘medical facts’ would have helped much. Because my behavior was whacked. I was hurting my wife and kids emotionally. I couldn’t stop myself. Like a lot of Pro Athletes, I had to go back to work. Injured or not. I had a baby and a toddler. And my wife Jenn needed to be home to care for them. With the head injury everything, even simple tasks, took ten times longer than it use too. One thing with a head injury is that your body throws all of its energy toward healing the brain. All you and your brain want to do is sleep. And sleep. The fatigue is incredible. I would completely run out of energy in about 2-3 hours. As a former top athlete who could surf in huge conditions for long periods of time this was an unexpected, and a bizarre, form of ‘failing’. I felt like I was failing my company, my family, myself by not being more strong and vigorous. Communicating became so hard that I gave up trying with most people. I literally tried to not talk to my wife because it seemed that it would usually end up in a fight. I could not meet her emotional needs like I used to. She is a wonderful woman. But for her it was like living with a stranger-not who she married. I couldn’t get my words out in time, and she would get frustrated. She was trying to mother two extremely small children, kind of on her own, with me in the house as the ‘patient’. It was a heavy burden for her. I would get frustrated and then I would start yelling. So I learned that if I didn’t talk I wouldn’t be yelling.
Something had to change, waiting for my brain to heal was taking too long. I desperately needed help, I needed a shortcut to healing. It was clear to me that my family couldn’t bear the pressure I put them under much longer and that my job would eventually let me go for my lack of performance. I desperately needed to find a solution. Out of the blue, Barbara Bridges, CEO of PASA, from Half Moon Bay, CA LinkedIn to me. She lives near Mavericks. And she had found out about my accident. The same day she contacted me via LinkedIn, she asked Dr. Daniel Amen, who specializes in NFL head injury cases, to watch my Guinness World Record Wave video from Cortes Bank: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FITBgDNo5QY He had never watched Big Wave Surfing events before. He was stunned at the waves and the sheer beauty of the sport. And he knew immediately by watching that Big Wave surfers are at serious risk for head injury, multiple concussions, and therefore CTE. The same as NFL football players. No Pro Surfer I know wants to confront, or accept, that unwelcome idea. Surfing is an unmitigated delight. It’s so fun it can become an addiction. But think about the weight of a big wave when it hits your head. It’s like hitting a piece of concrete. Dr. Amen was astonished I was even alive after such a serious head and spinal injury – because I shouldn’t be. It was a true miracle. To my great delight and relief he sort of adopted me. He has given me more than a year’s worth of brain injury treatments.
My journey back to health has been painful, frightening, challenging and it is now turning into a big adventure. Thanks to Dr. Amen I am back to work and back to (safer) surfing. I did not just my life back. I got a whole new life back. I want to help and inspire injured surfers, swimmers and divers all around the world. Really great things can happen if you just keep hoping, take it one day at a time and don’t give up. You can get a whole lot better than you think - if you just persevere.
So let’s talk about head injuries. Your head injury. How can you get well?
Jenn and I knew I needed specialized help. We watched Dr. Amen’s YouTube videos to inspire me and the message was always “You can have a better brain”. I badly needed a better brain. Dr. Amen and I began a dialogue. He invited me to his San Francisco clinic to get a scan and see what was going on.
December 31, 2015 I did my first SPECT imaging at the Amen clinic. SPECT Imaging is a 3D image of the brain that lights up the areas where blood flows. My SPECT image showed a lot of brain damage and places where there was no blood flow. No blood flow is basically a dead area. My holes and dents in my brain were all over, top and bottom, side to side. It was not just the area of recent injury I had sustained in Big Sur. It wasn’t the picture of yourself would ever want to see, but trust me it’s not close to the worst NFL Players’ scans they have done.
I sat down with Dr. Emina and he explained to Jenn and me that I had significant damage and that my brain had been experiencing a lot trauma from Pro Surfing for a long time. He explained that my images looked similar to the scans of many NFL players they treat. To put that in context, I’ve never played football, but I looked like I had played in high school, college and Pro Football. I realized big wave surfing is far more risky than I ever thought. I was truly shocked. On the bright side, my wife Jenn, and I, now had a much clearer understanding of what I was dealing with. It was my true diagnosis. Not a Neurologists’s ‘best guess’. It explained a lot. It explained everything about my chaotic thought life and my unstable and volatile behavior.
My MRIs had shown nothing. And CT scans would have shown nothing. They are a completely different kind of imaging. They show structures, but they do not show blood flow. Everyone else to this point said I was “fine”, “Everything looks good.”,But I now had clear medical proof to support what I was feeling. It was a great relief. For me that meant I wasn’t confused as to why I was so unstable and feeling so horrible. For my wife, she now understood I was seriously hurt and that that person she married before was now a very different man. She realized that I needed love, support and her patience to get better. Outwardly I had looked so “Well”. She began to have more compassion for me that she had ever had before. It brought us much closer.
Understanding the benefits of a SPECT scan can be simply put like this: If you think you may have broken your arm you to go get x-rays, because it’s important to know if it is broken. If an x-ray reveals it is indeed broken you put a cast on it and let it heal. If it’s not broken, just damaged, you slow down and let it heal until things get back to normal. But the x-ray gives proof of a serious injury, the exact kind of injury, and dictates the best route to healing. A SPECT scan is your ‘cerebral x-ray’. It clearly shows the extent of brain damage, shows the severity and areas that need treatment. And the Amen Clinics can set up your game plan to heal. You get guidance and direction for all kinds of therapies that can be super helpful.
Initially, I was in a tremendous amount of acute pain every day from my broken neck. Injuries close to the spinal cord can drive you insane the pain is so very intense. I took myself off of the Opioid pain killers that were having radical side effects, but the result was migraines daily. I was sometimes throwing up from the pain. Life was pretty miserable.
Dr. Cook had a solution that was much better than Opioids. I went to his clinic and we did a round of ‘Neuro Prolo’. After my treatment my pain was gone and I was feeling so much better.
What is Neuro Prolo? Dr. Cook is a licensed anesthesiologist, a medical doctor, and uses an ultrasound machine to see pinched nerves or damaged areas. He then inserts a small needle filled with Dextros between the nerve and the impacted area. The Dextros or “sugar water” calms the nerve and also gives it space to not be impacted or pinched. The treatment lasts a few days in terms of pain relief. The pain does come back – but only at about 50% of the prior intensity. A week or two later you do it again and that usually drops it down another increment of 50% of pain level. You repeat the process breaks the pain cycle, until your body is out of pain - or you can manage the reduced pain on your own. There are no known side effects. This therapy is way better for you than Opioid pain killers. Chronic pain is a huge problem for head injury patients. This cutting edge therapy stops the cycle of chronic pain.
The clinic I went to: https://www.bayareahyperbarics.com
Dr. Scott Sherr firstname.lastname@example.org
What is HBOT?
Essentially Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is delivered by you entering a tube structure, like deep sea divers might decompress in. You enter, and stay inside for a doctor-prescribed time period. The pressure inside can be adjusted and changed. The point is to push more oxygen into your brain for healing. It’s the same kind of tube that a deep sea diver would use if they had the bends. When you are in the tube you are breathing pure oxygen and dropped down to a pressure that would mimic being in 10-12 feet of water. The oxygen you are breathing oxygenates your blood and is easily able to push through the blood brain barrier and start to bring fresh oxygenated blood to the brain. It also helps to drain the toxic fluids in the injured brain and brings down the inflammation. With HBOT your cells start to regenerate much more quickly, due to the high oxygenation, and you also start to create Stem Cells at a higher rate. These processes start healing your body very quickly. Being in ‘the tube’ is relaxing and you can watch movies to pass the time. The lack of blood flow to the brain is the main reason concussions take so long to recover and are so challenging. Not enough blood is getting to the brain normally to heal the damaged area. The first time I did HBOT I felt a huge improvement. I could think more clearly, I was faster mentally and just felt better overall. I could literally feel my brain working better and the relief that this brought was profound. I can’t stress enough how much HBOT can quickly and safely heal a concussion or TBI. If you can get in there very quickly after your accident you can actually reverse the damage in a few treatments (in some cases), and be back to normal. I was on the extreme side due to years of surfing and very heavy wipeouts, and I needed 80+ treatments. This was due to all the many years of damage that had accumulated from supposedly ‘minor’ concussions.
Cranial Chiropractic or Cranial Osteopath I went to Santa Cruz Chiropractor - Dr. Sylvia Skefich www.Vital-You.com (831) 475-1995 Dr. Sylvia brought me out of cervical vertebrae neck pain on a regular basis and brought my body into alignment. Going to a cranial specialist is important because they open up the pathways to allow the brain to drain. This is a medical specialty and you should not under any circumstances entrust your delicate fractured neck to just any ordinary Chiropractor. After your spinal vetebrae get fractured and have healed, there is often scar tissue. This area gets pinched and blood flow gets diminished. This is a physical way that you can maximize the flow and reduce pain. This therapy maximized the benefits of my HBOT treatments.
Sylvia seeks to release the natural spinal rhythm and flossing that should be in the spine and in the body tissues. There is a subtle rhythmic very slow breathing motion in the spine. It is a physical thing, it's not "energy." When there is an injury, whether an old one or a new one, that natural rhythmic pulse can be decreased or absent in that area of the body due to micro scarring in the tissues. Cranio-sacral therapy helps to mobilize that scarring, or resuscitate it, back to the normal motion patterns that should be there. This helps to optimize circulation and nerve function. The cranio-sacral motion has been compared to the "breath" of the lungs. Or the beat of the heart--a circulation method....But it is the "breath" of the spine--a slow 12 second breath that moves in a sine-wave, more or less, physically speaking. When the breath or rhythm is resuscitated to the area, then it continues to heal from that point onward, because the area is now mobilized, continuing to improve function, circulation, and nerve impulses. Cranio-Sacral technique is a field that originated in Osteopathy about 100 years ago, and is now practiced by certain Osteopaths, Chiropractors, and Massage Therapists.
If HBOT took my brain to a 50% recovery, I would say Hormone Therapy took me to 75% healed, overall. This has had huge lasting impacts. I felt and now feel much better. My body began to balance itself out and started to return to my old athletic self in some ways.
This treatment is covered in the podcast I put above. Listen to it and be encouraged. I recommend this even if you don’t have a head injury it’s worth investigating. When you have a head injury you go into massive and chronic inflammation. Inflammation causes cell death and can lead to immune system problems and, some medical professionals believe, cancer. This inflammatory process over long periods of time begins to stress organs and to shut down functions of the body and throw everything out of whack. This is why I was in a downward spiral after 4 months post head injury – instead of feeling better. I was getting worse because the inflammation was out of control and wrecking my body. Through a blood panel tests Dr. Gordon can see and diagnose where your deficiencies are - then work to raise and normalize your levels with supplements and hormones.
For example, when you hit your head (if you are a male) it’s very typical you become deficient in testosterone and high in estrogen. For a guy this is a big problem. I was put on a number of supplements. The most interesting things were that many are the building blocks to the brain like DHA and pregnenalone. In the long term you give your body the help it needs to find its healthy balance again. Then you can remove yourself form the supplements. It’s not a permanent thing.
I did culture expanded stem cell therapy and it brought me back to my old self.( Please Google this treatment and save me the trouble of the ‘deep medical terminology’ details.) I received 210 million stem cells in an IV. When they give the high dosages they travel into the brain. The cells went to work and started regenerating all the damaged areas in my body. My knee no longer has pain and my neck is much stronger. What I noticed the most is that I could think clearly. The fog was lifted. Within 2 days I felt like my old self. The stem cells were reconnecting and regenerating pathways in my brain. My mood mellowed. I was truly happy, calm and present again. My wife can see the change in me the most, this truly brought me back to the person I was before the accident. We are back in love.
I’m still healing, but for the most parts my days are as good or better than before my accident. My brain is still healing and I still get tired. I still have to take it easy but it’s amazing ‘coming back’. My neck is still not as strong as it used to be - but over time it’s getting stronger. I am probably not going to take on any 60 foot waves. ‘Been there, done that, got the Guinness World Record.” We all know there are Young Guns coming up who will break any world record. But I have been able to go back to recreational surfing in Santa Cruz. I’m looking forward to the improvements I am making. I plan on doing more stem cell treatments. I’m also still on hormone therapy and I try to go to Physical Therapy once a week.
Organic I eat as much organic food as I can. I try to eat according to the bulletproof diet or Amen Clinic diet. We are made up of what we eat so eating nutrient rich foods that are organic will give your body a huge advantage.
Gluten Free I’m allergic to Gluten, but always ‘got by’. However, Gluten causes inflammation and with a brain injury it was throwing fuel on a fire. Dr. Cook also explained to me that through my injury I did damage to my blood-brain barrier and it has holes in it now. So anything that I ate or was exposed to could now travel directly into my brain. I lost that natural barrier that protects the brain from pathogens or harmful things in the body. So when I ate gluten it literally attacked my brain, caused me to be extremely foggy headed and have feelings of a minor concussion. By removing Gluten I’ve eliminated a major factor that negatively affected my brain.
Sleep Sleep is absolutely critical to healing all parts of the body. I try to get at least 8 hours of sleep. When I was healing I needed 10-12 hours. The brain heals during sleep. If you have any kind of head injury, embrace the fact that you are going to need a whole lot of sleep. You are not lazy.
Stress Do your best to eliminate stress. Keep things simple around you. Lower your exposure to things that wear you out and make you tired. Avoid conflict. Very ‘good activities’ require data processing to handle by your brain. Even being with a lot of friends who love you for too long can absolutely thrash you. Do everything in moderation. Check out of social situations when you start to lag - and go rest in a quiet room.
Patience It is going to take you a very long time to heal. You have to accept this. Give yourself a long timeline. ‘Type A’ athletes want things, and they want them NOW. A thrill. A rush. A wave. A few seconds or minutes of intense pleasure. Often they value experiences above people. Your brain works exactly the opposite. A head injury sometimes takes years to heal. Pain is a very good teacher. Slow down. Accept the fact that you are building a whole new organ inside your skull. It is going to take as long as it takes. That is your time line. Hang out with people who understand this. And be very kind to yourself. Head injuries are indeed life changing. But they don’t have to be the end of the world. Mine has made me a better father, a better husband and a better person. Almost losing your life is a very maturing experience. A whole lot that is trivial, selfish and unimportant simply drops away. All those things stand out in very stark contrast. A big wave can’t hug you, laugh with you, encourage you or make love to you. You can’t watch a big wave grow up – except as a menacing and imminent hold down headed your way. A big wave can be a temporary intense adrenaline thrill - assuming you catch it. But it is by its very nature, in its cold blue heart, out to kill you.
I am very grateful I made it back to shore. Very glad and flat out joyous to be alive. Kissing my wife every night, and carrying my children on my shoulders. I will always love the ocean. I am a Waterman. I always will be. I am very blessed I caught all those spectacular waves. But my greatest mission and my greatest thrills now are on shore. Where my all friends and family are. Fully alive.
Shawn Dollar 09/19/2017