Years later, Lavenstein still affected by concussionFormer competitive skater saw life come apart as result of repeated falls
This is the story of Savannah Lavenstein, a former competitive skater who suffered a severe concussion in her early teens that continues to affect her now, at the age of 27. After years of diagnoses, misdiagnoses, a battery of medications and numerous seizures, Lavenstein finally appears to have her symptoms under control. She lives in Moab, Utah, where she works as a surgical scrub technician and is thinking about pursuing medical school. She enjoys mountain climbing, yoga and, yes, skating.
Savannah Lavenstein skated for the first time when she was 5, at an indoor facility in western Wyoming that morphed into a convention center of sorts in the summertime. Venturing out on the ice that first time, it was love at first stroke.
"I was one of those girls who started skating with a birthday party," Lavenstein said. "It was my birthday, and I went out there and just cruised around. Right away, I bought the dresses and the tights and I was into it. I felt like I was really good at it."
And she was good at it. When her rink closed for the summer, Lavenstein and her mom hopped in an RV and traveled to Colorado Springs and Sun Valley, Idaho, where Savannah would train. By the time she was 11, she began training full time at the famed Broadmoor Skating Club with one of the top coaches in the country, Tom Zakrajsek. The following year, her entire family uprooted itself from Wyoming to live in Colorado Springs.
For a while, Lavenstein was in heaven, arriving at the rink at about 6 a.m. and calling it a day at 8 p.m. Skating, ballet and weight training were her life, and a regional victory in Texas cemented her decision to commit to the sport fully. Lavenstein's father was a former Marine, and Savannah lived her days like a Marine on duty. Her mother, Jamie, said she kept the toughest schedule and showed discipline in every facet of her life.
But everything changed dramatically when she took a hard fall one day while attempting a double lutz combination. As she took off, her toe pick jabbed the ice a little bit out of position. She landed on her right hip, and the back of her head smacked against the ice.
"I still don't remember what I felt at that moment," said Lavenstein, who was about 13 at the time. "I remember feeling the toe pick and I just felt wrong. I kept asking myself, 'What happened?' It really is still a blur."
After that fall, Lavenstein stopped practicing for the day. But she was back on the ice later that week and suffered two more hard falls on the same jump.
"The second time I fell, I ran off the ice and threw up," she said. "In my mind, I couldn't even visualize this jump anymore without falling."
As challenging as that week was, Lavenstein never asked her mom to see a doctor.
"I don't remember her ever saying that, no," Jamie said. "She never complained. There's so much awareness about this now, but back then there wasn't. I look back and think, 'How could I have missed all this?' but it just wasn't the same."
Jamie said that Zakrajsek encouraged her to see a doctor. Fortunately for the Lavensteins, they had access to top medical care, as Colorado Springs is the home of the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Olympic boxing team doctor ran some tests and determined that she had suffered a concussion.
"He recommended that I stop skating for a year," Lavenstein said. "For me, this just was not an option. I kept going back to the rink, but I was not the same person. I was afraid, but at this point skating was the only thing I knew in my life."
She decided to compete at the Golden West Championships, a large summer competition in California. At that point, Zakrajsek was no longer coaching her, and he did not travel with her to the event. The competition was a disaster, and the numerous falls she sustained there ultimately were the breaking point.
"I would get angry at times later in my life and ask myself, 'Why didn't someone tell me to stop?' " Lavenstein said. "But the truth is, I don't think I would have."
But after Golden West, she did stop.
"I'll never forget it," Jamie said. "She told me on April 1st that she was quitting. I thought it was an April Fool's Day joke. But it wasn't. She quit, and she didn't go back to skating."
One by one, Savannah lost her many ties to the skating community.
"I thought, 'OK, I'm going to be a normal kid,'" Lavenstein said. "I let go of skating, but I was ashamed of what had happened. I started back in school in the middle of eighth grade, and I was super excited, but then I was given work to do at home, and I couldn't focus."
She started psychologcal therapy for what was believed to be attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
"When I got to high school, I started thinking about it, and I thought, 'I was a really good student, but now I can't care about school," Lavenstein said. "Maybe there is something wrong with my brain.'"
By sophomore year, she was prescribed anti-depressants.
"The concussion, oddly enough, kind of slipped from all of our minds at this point," she said. "We kind of forgot about the falls and thought the problem was something else."
She had pushed skating so far out of her mind that even when it was on TV, she had to force herself to tune in when her former training mates were competing in front of a national audience.
All the while, her health continued to deteriorate. In her junior year of high school, she went on a field trip to Denver. As she was driving home, she approached an intersection, and the next thing she knew, she was in an ambulance.
"I remember waking up and my mom and dad were there, but I didn't know who they were," Lavenstein said. "I was in the ER for the first time in my whole life. I didn't know what was going on. I could hear voices and knew they were familiar, but I didn't know whose voices they were. It turns out I had a seizure."
Fortunately, a friend was in a car behind hers and was able to get Lavenstein's car out of harm's way.
At the hospital, she underwent brain scans, and doctors initially thought she had a tumor on the back of her skull.
"That's when my mom said, 'Isn't that where you hit your head skating?'" Lavenstein said.
She did not have a tumor but rather a calcium deposit on the back of her skull; the culprit, doctors concluded, was the concussion she sustained years before.
Twenty-eight days later, she suffered a second seizure. This time, it happened right in front of her high school -- constituting not only a health issue but a teenager's worst nightmare.
"It was very difficult because of the stigma that went with it all," Lavenstein said. "Friends stopped talking to me."
Then came the terrible migraine headaches. When those hit, Lavenstein had to lie down in the dark.
"No lights at all," she said. "I would just pray that I wouldn't throw up, that I could just go to sleep. I never had migraines before the concussion, but now there where some months when I forgot what it was like not to have a headache."
She had a third seizure, and doctors were convinced she had epilepsy. Her health issues spinning out of control, she started new medication that eliminated the seizures but made her fatigued and depressed.
"I felt like I lost the fight," she said. "I felt hopeless."
After three months, she switched medications. Then she stopped medication altogether.
"And I had a really bad seizure, where I split my head open," Lavenstein said. "I was at a friend's home, and I fell backward into a desk."
Part of her face became paralyzed from that incident, and it took 4-6 weeks for her to regain feeling in that area.
Wanting to be an independent young adult, she went off to college in Santa Barbara, California. During the first week of orientation, however, she suffered another seizure, falling down stadium steps at a soccer game. Midway through her sophomore year, she decided to transfer to the University of Colorado Boulder so she could be closer to her family. She started working with a new set of neurologists, and she also returned to the ice for the first time in years.
The rink on campus was free for students, and Lavenstein would go there just to "let loose," doing basic jumps and spins.
On the ice, where the problems all began, she was oddly free again.
"I loved it," she said. "I had gotten the feeling from it again."
She also started climbing mountains and got involved in yoga, and later became a training instructor. She has a dog, who is always at her side when she goes on runs. On mountain hikes, she alerts guides to her condition.
"My support comes from family; my boyfriend; my trained dog, Corbet; my friends; and fellow athletes who encourage me to look ahead and not let seizures or the fear of one stop me," she wrote in a recent Facebook post.
As much as Lavenstein enjoys the view from the mountain tops or learning a new yoga pose, she still hasn't found a replacement for skating in her life.
"I kept looking for my next thing, but I think I realized that I already found my thing, and it's so cool that I got to find it and do it," Lavenstein said. "I decided now that I want to help people. I want to climb mountains that I think are beautiful. I want to be able ski; not jumping or dropping cliffs, but just to do it and be proficient at it."
She watches skating these days and marvels at the extreme technical difficulty in the sport.
"That's what great athletes do," she said. "They keep pushing the sport, but there's got to be some intelligence about how we push. Is it sustainable? I don't think so, but I love that spirit of freestyle skaters. They want to be better than they were yesterday. But I think it's OK to take a day off when they need to. I guess it takes perspective to have perspective."
Lavenstein said she would be a tough parent if/when she has a child who wants to skate.
"When I was skating, wearing a helmet was just not cool, but if I have a daughter, she will wear one," Lavenstein said.
In the last four years, Lavenstein has suffered just two seizures, the last one occurring about a year ago. She has tried holistic approaches to treatment, but they have not helped.
She hopes that by telling her story she can help others who have encountered similar problems. (She said she knows of other skaters who have suffered from post-concussion symptoms.) Her aforementioned Facebook post, which appeared on the page of the Chelsea Hutchinson Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting people with epilepsy, was a big first step.
This interview was another.
"I am so much better than I was before," Lavenstein said. "I take daily medication, and I have compromised with my neurologist. I am taking about half of what I was taking in high school, and I make sure I get enough sleep.
"The most important thing is now I am in a place where I am not fighting against it," she added. "I am going to work with it. And now when I see a doctor, I start by talking about the initial fall."
Her voice trails off a bit and then she adds, "If only it was that easy at the beginning."