Our Patients. Their Stories. David McKinnon
After an injury, you’ve got to let the brain heal. Parents, coaches and leagues have got to do more to recognize the dangers and to require post-concussion treatment and healing time.David McKinnon
As a high school senior in the 1990s, David McKinnon scored a mind-boggling 12 goals in three playoff games on his way to leading Lebanon High School to its very first ice hockey state championship. Nobody imagined that this would be his last, proudest moment in the sport. Nobody, perhaps, but McKinnon himself.
That championship was the culmination of a young life spent mostly on the ice. “I grew up playing hockey,” McKinnon says. “We were a hockey family. Even when my mother was a kid, her brothers put her in the net, tied magazines to her legs, gave her a baseball glove, no helmet, and shot pucks at her.
“Early on, my Dad told me, ‘Figure out what you love in life, find out what makes you happy and go do it,’” McKinnon says, and so from age 12, his life revolved around hockey. He played year-round, simultaneously in different leagues, and often competed in three to five games each weekend.
Any waking hour he wasn’t at a team practice, at a game or in school—no matter the weather—he spent hitting the puck around. “I used to fight with my mother about going to play hockey on Occom Pond in Hanover past sunset when it was 20 below,” says McKinnon.
Much of his time on the ice was spent absorbing high-impact hits, often to the head, and failing to receive sound advice on how best to recover from them.
“I took a lot of hits,” McKinnon says. “I had concussions and knockouts and saw stars, but the only thing we knew then was to shake it off and keep playing. I’d say I was okay when I knew I wasn’t. My head would be pounding. I’d feel like my heartbeat was coming out of both my ears, but I shook it off and played through it.”
After an untold number of concussions through countless hours of playing, it was a knee injury at 19 that that made him realize he couldn’t keep up the pace. Soon after, he says, he made one of the hardest decisions of his life when he hung up his skates for good.
Trading a hockey stick for a golf club
At 35, McKinnon suddenly found himself struggling to put a ball on a tee at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida.
McKinnon’s Keys to Post-Concussion Management:
- “You can’t do it alone. You need a support group. You need your family and friends to encourage you, to keep you on track.”
- “After an injury, you have to let the brain heal. Get at least two weeks of rest, but find out what your doctor recommends. We’ve got to stop putting pressure on kids to get back in the game when they haven’t fully healed.”
- “The worst thing is stress and overdoing it in your daily life. Slow down. Know what exacerbates your symptoms and take it easy.”
After he’d stopped playing hockey, there again was his father asking him, “What else do you love, what else are you good at?” McKinnon thought: “I’m good at golf.” When he was younger he won a bet from a friend that he could hit the ball farther. He did, and he was hooked.
McKinnon enrolled in college in Florida where he honed his golf game and eventually turned semi-pro. But in the long run he narrowed his focus to simply hitting the ball as hard and as far as he could, and soon was competing in the World Long Drive Championships. In this arena, he made something of a name for himself, hitting distances more than four football fields, and one year placing 75th in the world.
Since then, he has worked as an instructor at various country clubs, his style and technique becoming highly sought-after, eventually being hired at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida.
A client one day, watching McKinnon struggle to tee up a ball, knew something was off. McKinnon had recently been slurring his words, fighting bouts of dizziness, sometimes even drooling. “You would’ve thought I was drunk.” At his client’s insistence, McKinnon finally relented and sought help.
“So I called my dad in New Hampshire, and I’m crying, and he just said, ‘Get up here. Come home. Get an MRI.’”
McKinnon returned home and began treatment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (D-H) with neurologist Aleksandra Stark, MD.
He believes Stark saved his life. “She took me under her wing. She knew exactly why I was so angry and frustrated, that I had post-concussion syndrome and didn’t know how to control my symptoms.”
Although no magic pill cures post-concussion syndrome, a diagnosis is a form of progress. “Dr. Stark told me that the hardest thing to do is getting guys like me, my size, to come in and admit, hey, I need help. Something’s wrong with my head.”
Through Stark’s guidance, McKinnon now understands the necessity of managing his condition for the rest of his life with the support and encouragement from his tight-knit family, his friends, the D-H community, his girlfriend, 16-month-old daughter and their second daughter due later this year.
McKinnon wants to make sure his girls and any kids involved in contact sports never go through what he went through as a young athlete. “After an injury, you’ve got to let the brain heal,” he says. “Parents, coaches and leagues have got to do more to recognize the dangers and to require post-concussion treatment and healing time.”