ELMHURST – Morgan Semmelhack was a star volleyball player for York High School before she went on to play Kent State’s Women’s Volleyball team.
But in one year, the former three-time Dukes captain suffered a series of concussions that derailed more than just her play on the court.
“I got my first one in October of 2014,” said Semmelhack, now a senior at Kent State planning to graduate in August. “I collided with a teammate.”
The following year, her fourth and final season, Semmelhack suffered three more concussions. The final one, in which the ball hit her square in the face, triggered vision problems.
“Last year, I had to stop playing because there was too much risk getting another concussion,” she said.
Morgan saw a number of doctors and found she had suffered post-traumatic vision syndrome.
“I had no idea how much it affects you just focusing,” she said. “It put a lot of strain on my eyes and caused headaches. It affected my vision, too. Bright lights really hurt my eyes. Just looking at screens made it tough to do homework, especially anything computer related.
“It was hard to read and focus on what I was reading. I didn’t even feel like myself anymore. Each day was focused on my headaches and not being able to just have my eyes work together right. I almost lost my identity and who I was.”
Semmelhack’s grades suffered. For a graphic design major whose work depends almost solely on a computer, she knew she had to do something.
She started researching different vision therapy centers and found one near her home where she was going to spend her summer break.
“I found Clarendon Vision Development Center in Clarendon Hills and it had great reviews,” Semmelhack said. “The staff helped me out tremendously. I didn’t really know what to expect going into it. I started by getting exams and talking to Dr. [Monika] Spokas about my problems. She helped me and I started therapy. It was really cool. I was really surprised by the results.”
By the end of summer, “I was able to look at light and not be as sensitive to it. My reading got better. My life improved so much from vision therapy. I’m so, so thankful I went there,” Semmelhack said.
Vision therapy isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around for more than 80 years, said Spokas, a developmental optometrist.
“It’s oftentimes used for learning-related vision disorders, and for traumatic brain injury rehabilitation,” she said. “Its applications are very wide. For athletes, it’s used to improve speed, reaction and, oftentimes, their game. Vision problems are so prevalent in concussions. Many don’t realize part of their symptoms are due to vision problems. We understand now there’s so much more to vision than 20/20 eyesight. Vision is not just in the eyeballs. It actually happens in the brain. Eighty percent of brain pathways have something to do with vision, so it’s no surprise when there’s an injury to the brain vision is affected one way or another.
“Morgan was having a significantly difficult time maintaining her academic level at school and a neurologist recommended her,” Spokas said. “Her symptoms significantly improved to managing her symptoms to a level where she could return to school”
Recovery from a concussion does take time, but Spokas cautioned against waiting too long.
“The sooner therapy starts, the better the results will be,” she said. “Even though there’s no bleeding and a patient looks fine on [the] outside, there’s an insult or trauma to the brain. Therapy helps retrain the brain again by forming new connections or strengthening the pathways that have been affected by concussion.”
It’s extremely important to identify if a person has had a concussion, Spokas warned.
“That’s a big topic with sports concussions,” she said. “They look fine and get back to play, but if you don’t address the impact of a concussion, then a second and third is more likely. That’s what happened to Morgan. Unfortunately, they’re cumulative.”
For her part, Semmelhack, who no longer plays volleyball, wants to send a heads-up to athletes and coaches.
“I just want to put the word out that concussions are really prominent in sports, and I don’t think athletes take care of them well enough and I don’t think coaches take them as seriously as they should,” she said. “In my experience, I’m still dealing with the effects today. It really changes your life. I highly recommend athletes taking time off after a concussion, seeing a professional and getting vision therapy. I wouldn’t be where I am right now and feeling as good as I do right now without it.”