Her petite frame was perfect for a basket toss, shoulder stand or the tiptop of a base stunt. Merideth Brooks had cheered on the sidelines of sporting events in elementary school and middle school. Her goal was to cheer throughout high school and on into college.
But those plans changed in seconds.
It was halftime of the Herron High School Achaeans basketball game Dec. 7, 2012. Brooks was 10-feet above the hardwood floor finishing a stunt when she fell, landing headfirst. The gym grew silent.
She lost consciousness and remembers waking up to emergency workers strapping her into a cervical collar and loading her onto a backboard. She remembers it was snowing outside. The rest is a blur.
“It’s a scary thing for a 13-year-old to hear they might be paralyzed. The EMT’s took good care of me,” said Brooks. She was rushed to IU Health Methodist Hospital where scans were conducted. It was determined there was no bleeding on her brain but she had suffered a concussion in the fall.
She was released into the care of her primary physician for ongoing testing every two weeks to determine the extent of the concussion. She failed the concussion test four times and the headaches that started early on began to intensify.
“I went from a normal busy teenager to barely being able to get out of bed. I couldn’t stand up without passing out,” said Brooks. “We went to every doctor – every specialist you can imagine – cardiologists, neurologists, psychologists – trying to find out what was wrong.” Her parents didn’t know it on that fateful December night but there would be more ambulance transports to ER in their daughter’s future.
It was those emergency transports that left her with such a powerful lasting impression of first responders. Now at the age of 19, she is in her final year studying for a degree in paramedic science and began working as a LifeLine EMT in December of 2016 – four years after her cheerleading accident.
“Working as an EMT has been the best thing that’s happened to me,” said Brooks. “For the longest time I didn’t even know if I’d graduate from high school. I didn’t even know if I’d get out of my wheelchair or live much of a life at all. To be on the other side is the greatest gift. I’m not a patient anymore I have patients of my own to care for.”
It wasn’t always like that.
In and out of Riley Hospital for Children, she missed school and continued to suffer extreme dizziness, headaches and nausea. At one point doctors thought her symptoms were psychological episodes triggered by a conversion disorder. Another time there was testing for allergies. After six months, the diagnosis emerged. Brooks has Postural Orthostatic Tachycarida Syndrome. Commonly known as POTS, the condition affects blood flow and is a form of orthostatic intolerance where symptoms develop when a person stands up from a reclining position. The primary symptoms are lightheadedness, fainting, and a rapid heart rate.
Many people develop POTS after an illness, serious infection or trauma such as a head injury.
For Brooks – the very sights and sounds that she now works with daily – bright lights and sirens – were triggers for her symptoms.
“A loud sound like a fire alarm can be perceived as a threat. My brain couldn’t connect the dots to tell me what was actually happening,” said Brooks. Before her diagnosis, she suffered seizures and spent a year in a wheelchair because her muscles were too weak for her to feel safe walking. Many times she spent a week’s time at Riley for symptoms resulting from a compromised immune system.
It wasn’t until her senior year of high school that a strict medical regime helped treat the symptoms and retrain her brain.
“I spent so much time learning about medicine and the different parts of my disease that I really grew to like the emergency medicine side,” said Brooks. So the summer after her senior year she enrolled in an EMT class and began working at LifeLine after completing her certification.
Her experience and diagnosis has also led Brooks to public speaking and fundraising encouraging others to learn more about POTS and to raise awareness about concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
“When my accident happened we knew what a traumatic brain injury was, we just didn’t know what POTS was. I have learned so much,” said Brooks. “I say my story isn’t a sad story because of where I am today. It was unfortunate and I was unlucky but I’m so much more of a person now than I was six years ago – I see life in a completely different way and when I respond to an emergency where there is a head injury, I can relate. I know what it feels like to be strapped to a backboard, to wake up from a seizure, to be scared.”
— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.