West Carteret soccer player Hayden Pittman takes vision therapy after she received a kick to the back that affected her balance and vision. (Contributed photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — Hayden Pittman suffered a concussion in a soccer game April 9. Nearly four months later, she’s just rounding back to full health.

The talented defender was the lone freshman on the West Carteret varsity roster when the Patriots took on White Oak in the 12th game of the year. Her season came to an end when she got tangled up with a Vikings player and received a kick to the back of the head.

“As soon as I got kicked, I instantly got a headache, and then I had an asthma attack,” she said. “My eyes got all starry. Apparently, I was lying there for like 15 minutes, but I don’t remember that.”

That scary moment began a road to recovery that continues to this day. She has taken trips to Chapel Hill, Duke and Wilmington for testing and treatment. She went to physical therapy three days a week and traveled to Wilmington once a week for vision therapy.

“I remember on our first trip to Wilmington, she cried the entire way,” said Pittman’s mother, Lisa. “She was so tired of therapy, of feeling bad, of not being to do the things she wanted to do. She was just tired.”

Hayden took Topamax for daily headaches for the first three weeks and then alternated ibuprofen and Tylenol for the next month. She couldn’t really walk for the first three weeks, and it was six weeks before she didn’t have to hold someone’s arm when she walked.

“I would use walls or tables to walk as I got better,” she said. “Everything was so uneven. It’s like when you’re on a boat for a long time and you get off and you still feel like you’re on it. The first two weeks, I wondered if I would play again. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through.”

She returned to school six days after the injury and at first used a wheelchair to navigate. Teachers and administrators then helped her make her way to class.

“The teachers were very understanding,” Lisa said. “We had a lot of support. People like Mr. (Cory) Noe and Mr. (Joe) Poletti would walk her to class.”

Thankfully, her injury occurred near the end of the school year, but there were still adjustments to be made. She went half days for a while, and the Carteret County Public School System communicated with the state to get her exempt from end-of-course testing.

Life had to be put on hold for the 15-year-old.

“She has her learning permit, but she couldn’t drive,” Lisa said. “Anything different set her back. When she felt a little better, we went out in the boat and she had a three-day headache after.”

Her life continues to be altered.

Hayden plays on a travel soccer team, and the season will soon begin. She was hoping to make the varsity volleyball team, and those tryouts will start soon. She hasn’t been cleared to begin full workouts for either sport.

“There have been volleyball and basketball workouts this summer, and I haven’t been able to join them,” said the four-sport standout. “I also didn’t get to go to volleyball camp. That was tough. I’m in the volleyball group chat, and they’re chatting, sending photos from camp. That hurt.”

There are signs of progress, however, for Hayden who also participates in track and field. She passed a couple of markers recently. Thirteen weeks and two days after her injury, she was released from balance therapy. Fifteen weeks and one day after her injury, she was released from vision therapy.

“It’s been an extended recovery,” Lisa said. “To watch your child struggle – I’ve thought about parents who have had kids in a car accident or parents of special needs kids. This was just a short portion of our lives. My kids have always been healthy and perfect. I got just a little taste of what it’s like. I don’t know how those parents do it. It’s been very difficult watching her struggle.”

Concussions aren’t uncommon in soccer.

In 2017, researchers at Northwestern University generated national headlines when they found concussion rates among young female soccer players were nearly as high as concussion rates for boys playing football – and roughly triple the rate of concussions in boys soccer.

Another 2017 national research report – this one by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons – showed that female soccer players suffer even more concussions than boys playing football.

The Pittman family was unfortunately familiar with the incidence of concussions in girls soccer.

“Her older sister, Madi, has had three concussions,” Lisa said. “She got (her last) two within a 12-month period in middle school, and they (the doctors) told her if she got another one, she would never be able to play contact sports again. We’re not new to concussions, but nothing like this one.”

Most of Madi’s concussions came from heading the ball, which is common. Hayden’s injury was uncommon with a kick to the back of the head, which affected her balance and vision.

The White Oak player caused a concussion to a different West player earlier in the contest and received a card but didn’t receive a card for her physical play on Hayden.

“We filed a complaint on the referee, the player and the White Oak coach,” Lisa said. “We got a formal apology from the referee, but nothing from White Oak. It’s frustrating. We don’t know if she can play soccer again if she gets another head injury, and you’re talking about someone that can possibly play in college.”

Hayden said she’s learned two things from the incident. She plans on dialing it back a bit on the pitch, limiting her intensity to keep another injury at bay. And her desire to become a physical therapist or trainer has only been reinforced by this injury.

“I knew what I wanted to do before this, but this has made me even more sure,” she said. “This has made me want to do it more. Helping people get through this kind of stuff is amazing.”

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