PARK CITY — When people tell her they feel weird and strange and a little bit crazy, Lauren Ziaks can relate.
She’s had a concussion too.
And not just one concussion, but nine of them. Name it, she’s banged her head doing it, starting with skiing into a tree when she was 12. There was also a car wreck, a slip on the stairs, a foul ball at a softball game. Her latest concussion was in January of 2014 while snowboarding (and wearing a helmet).
“I’m no extreme athlete,” says Lauren, 29, “just a regular person that’s a little bit clumsy.”
But her pain, as it turns out, has become other people’s gain.
That’s because, in between collisions — and maybe because of them — Lauren decided to study physical therapy. She got her bachelor’s and doctorate at Northeastern University in Boston, not far from where she grew up in Connecticut.
Her residency internships included working with football teams at the University of Georgia, Fordham University and the Arena Football League — after which she spent a year and a half traveling with snowboarders and skiers as a therapist for the U.S. Ski Team.
Two years ago, when her husband Scott, a mechanical engineer, accepted an offer from a firm in Utah, she decided to get a “normal” job and went to work for Dan Ivie and Brandon Judd at Wasatch Physical Therapy in Park City and Heber City.
After that, two things happened that turned Lauren into the queen of concussions.
One was getting treatment for her snowboard injury from Jennifer Thomas, a Salt Lake City occupational therapist who is at the forefront of concussion research that’s exploded the last few years. It was Thomas who diagnosed that Lauren’s vision needed to be treated first — something all of the doctors and physical therapists she’d seen over the years failed to grasp.
Two was recognizing the surprising number of people who came in for physical therapy with what she could now clearly see as symptoms of concussion.
“A lot of symptoms are missed by people who call themselves specialists,” she says.
Determined to not let what happened to her happen to her patients, Lauren began learning as much as she could about head injuries and how to treat them.
She traveled to concussion conferences around the country. She compared notes with Jen Thomas and other experts. She referenced her experiences working with college and professional football players and world-class skiers — people who hit their heads quite often.
Armed with what she learned, she made it her cause to educate doctors about the value of referring patients with concussion symptoms to qualified therapists.
As word spread about the new concussion guru in town, Lauren found herself treating more heads than necks, knees and shoulders combined. When demand reached a critical mass, she and two of Wasatch Physical Therapy’s top staffers, Krisde Patterson and Carolyn Ure, opened a branch of the clinic at Kimball Junction that deals exclusively with concussions (www.wasatchsportsmedicine.com).
Lauren sees plenty of skiers and boarders, but also athletes from many other sports, along with victims of car accidents and young kids who fall on the playground. She hasn’t seen many football players. In her experience, football players will do almost anything not to be told they have to miss a game. They also know the new and improved concussion testing is almost impossible to fool.
But denial is not a great defense.
“When in doubt, sit them out,” says Lauren, “because no matter how hard the initial blow, it’s the second hit that’s worse than the first.”
(As an aside, Lauren agrees that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the brain disease that is at the heart of the current football movie, “Concussion,” has people scared, but cautions, “It’s important to understand that CTE is a compilation of thousands of hits over your lifetime” — something not a lot of people are going to do.)
Her biggest satisfaction from doing what she’s doing? That’s easy. It’s seeing people who come in clutched up and shut down who walk out a couple of months later un-clutched and full of life.
“I’ve had middle-aged women come in who tell me they have to take a nap after making dinner for their family,” she says. “After treatment, one told me she was looking for a second job because she had so much energy.”
Hitting things with your brain is a fact of life, she notes, citing personal experience, but it’s just been in the last few years — thanks in no small part to the magnifying glass on football head injuries — that the brain is starting to hit back.
“We’re getting better at treating,” says Lauren. “I can understand where people are coming from when they have all these weird symptoms and think they’re crazy. For a long time, that was me.” The good news is, it didn’t have to be.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: [email protected]