Rebuilding Sidney Crosby’s brain

Ted Carrick is listening to Sidney Crosby’s heart. The NHL superstar is strapped into a computerized rotating chair that has just spun him like a merry-go-round.

It is, as Carrick likes to tell people who visit his lab at Life University near Atlanta, one of only three “whole-body gyroscopes” in the world, and it’s integral to his work as the founding father of “chiropractic neurology.” He uses it to stimulate certain injured and diseased brains.

Crosby, who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins and has been famously sidelined with a concussion since January, is Carrick’s newest patient, and this day in August is the first time they’ve met. Carrick leans in close, his balding, tanned head looming inches from Crosby’s face, and rests the stethoscope on his chest. “Let’s make sure you’re not dead.”

Carrick then signals to restart the gyroscope—with one difference. This time Crosby will be turned upside-down while he is also spun around. He hasn’t experienced this dual action yet. The door clangs shut. Above it, a stack of red, yellow and green lights shines while 10 high-pitched beeps signal the gyroscope is about to start. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

A low hum floods the room as the gyroscope begins its 20-second “montage” of rotations. With each flip, Crosby grips the black handles flanking his thighs, his face reddens and his jaw clenches. Before long, the gyroscope, called GyroStim, winds down. “Perfect,” Carrick concludes.
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Since January, when the hockey world was dealt a blow unlike any other it had ever experienced, fans have made Google searches of “Crosby” and “concussion” move in tandem as they try to make sense of what has happened to their favourite player. The best player since Wayne Gretzky was suddenly knocked out of the game indefinitely because of an invisible injury: no blood on the ice, no cracks on any X-rays and no way to know how bad was the damage done.

Scientists, doctors and equipment makers have used Crosby as a talking point to raise awareness and as a case study in the complexity of concussion. The NHL is embroiled in a polarizing debate over fighting in hockey—how to keep it in, but make it safe? And nervous hockey parents everywhere are reconsidering whether their children should keep playing. How Crosby recovers will help them decide.

Maclean’s obtained exclusive access to the lab where Crosby saw Carrick, and learned about his unique methods of treating brain injuries. While the details of Crosby’s personal health data remain private, over the course of two days, the magazine was granted access to a range of information about the treatments used on patients, including him. During that time in late September and early October, an astonishing assortment of patients came through the clinic. A wealthy businessman and his son. A prominent NFL player. An aging biology teacher who’d had a stroke. A boy with brain damage sustained after a van ran him over. A middle-aged physician who’d lost his ability to talk or walk after a tick bite. In every case, Carrick ran through a version of the same evaluation, exercises and equipment he used on Crosby. “We saw something like nine MDs, neurologists, cardiologists,” says one patient’s relative. “I’ve seen nothing that compares to this.”

The wait list to see Carrick can be as long as three years, though in some cases, such as with Crosby, patients can be expedited. By the time they met in Georgia, the reality of what Crosby could lose if he didn’t get better soon was abundantly and uncomfortably clear: his career, his endorsements, the adoration of an entire nation.

However strange that first day of treatment in the gyroscope was for Crosby, it proved encouraging enough that he continued seeing Carrick for the whole next week. They’d meet as early as seven in the morning, and they’d go as late as six at night, says Carrick, running through a circuit of high-tech equipment and low-tech exercises in the lab and at the local hockey rink. By the time Crosby travelled back to Pittsburgh, Carrick says, “he was better than, you know, super-normal.” The Penguins’ medical team, who have been overseeing Crosby’s recovery, also saw an improvement: they ran computerized tests called IMPACT to compare his current neurocognitive abilities with what they were before the concussion. The results: not quite “super-normal,” but “the best we’ve seen” since Crosby got hurt, as Michael Collins, a neuropsychologist who has been treating him for months said at the Sept. 7 press conference to update Crosby’s health.

“Carrick had a very prominent role in Sidney’s current recovery status,” Brisson, Crosby’s agent, told Maclean’s. “He progressed extremely well under Carrick.” Just 10 days after the press conference, Crosby joined his teammates on the ice for the first day of training camp. Three-and-a-half weeks after that, Crosby was cleared for contact—the final step before returning to play. Now, after nearly a year of nagging symptoms that have included fogginess, light-headedness and nausea so paralyzing Crosby couldn’t drive or watch TV, and after a slew of setbacks each time he pushed too hard while exercising or skating, the greatest hockey player of this generation is verging on a comeback—perhaps because of a relatively unknown therapy he received at a relatively unknown university from a relatively unknown man who isn’t even a medical doctor.

Come what may, Carrick has set out to do what no amount of time or rest or other expert has managed to accomplish so far: rebuild Sid’s brain.

READ THE FULL STORY IN THE LATEST ISSUE OF MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE

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