The chase for the puck was on and Christian Higham was one stride ahead of an opponent. Her powerful strides carved her skate blades into the glossy ice. She was the first to the puck, and the distance between her and the boards became next to nothing. The opponent rushed toward Christian and smashed her from behind. The impact launched Christian headfirst into the boards. A hockey helmet can only do so much.
The hit caused Christian to add a second concussion to her injuries list on October 27, 2013.
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury caused by a blow or jolting motion. A brain sits inside a skull with the freedom to move — like a tea bag floating in a glass mug. When a brain rapidly shakes back and forth, fragile cells and structures become damaged, potentially affecting how it functions.
Female athletes are twice as likely to sustain a concussion than male athletes.
A study about concussions in team sports by the National Library of Medicine found women’s ice hockey saw more concussions than men’s American football during practice. During gameplay, women’s ice hockey has more concussions than men’s ice hockey. The study highlighted future research needs to focus on concussions in women’s sports because there’s limited data.
In 2017, The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association was the first to discover women take longer to recover from concussions. Males between the ages of 14 and 18 reported having symptoms for an average of 14 days. Females in the same age group reported 30 days of symptoms, implying females take twice as long to recover.
The most common concussion symptoms are dizziness, nausea, headache, confusion, and ringing in the ears. Christian had common concussion symptoms and several uncommon ones.
Christian, 16 at the time, recovered slowly because her symptoms persisted. A specialist diagnosed her with a form of post-concussion syndrome (PCS). PCS refers to a lengthy recovery with symptoms like depression, anxiety, irritability, and mood swings. Recovering from a concussion depends on how a person sustains the injury, their gender, its severity, and the number of concussions they’ve had before.
Instead of addressing a concussion with a one-size-fits-all guideline, a study published in the National Library of Medicine suggests concussion management needs to address the injury case-by-case.
September 2014: A Rare Injury
Christian rushed the puck into the opposing team’s end. She skated toward the edge of the ice to get around the defenceman. The two girls were side-by-side.
“I was trying to pass her and when that moment was about to happen, I held my breath to prepare for the contact,” she said. The collision caused air to burst from inside her lung.
Christian skated to her team’s bench, sat down, and struggled to catch her breath.
Team Manitoba rested between back-to-back games. “Do you hear my voice?” Christian asked her teammates at the time. To her, when she talked, it sounded like she was underwater. The pressure in her chest tightened.
Christian slipped into her hockey equipment for the second game of the day. She tried to ignore her muffled voice and calmed her nerves by reminding herself she wasn’t crazy. Half-way through the game, Christian skated off the ice, b-lined to the bench, and laid down on her back. She uttered to her teammates. “We hear it now! We can hear your voice!” they responded.
Soon after, doctors and nurses gathered in a hospital room and gazed upon an X-ray image of Christian’s lungs. They inspected the picture as if they were looking for Waldo. Christian patiently sat and emailed her teacher from St. Mary’s Academy and asked if she could write her test on Tuesday instead of Monday because she wouldn’t be out of the hospital in time.
Christian’s lung injury is called pneumomediastinum. Pneumomediastinum is when air escapes from one of the lungs through a hole or tear like a birthday balloon slowly deflating because of a tiny hole. The escaped air from the lung fills the center of the chest called the mediastinum. The mediastinum contains the heart, thymus gland, part of the esophagus, and trachea. It’s rare and happens to only one in 45,000 people.
The main symptoms are chest pain, difficulty breathing, and voice distortion. Pneumomediastinum heals and usually doesn’t reoccur, but depending on the case, it can return.
“I saw my chest injury as the start of the end,” she said.
Christian sat out for six weeks then went to training rehab before she returned to hockey.
Before her lung injury, Christian attended a selection camp for Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team. While her lungs recovered, she waited to hear back if she would advance to the next round. She updated Hockey Canada on her recovery progress.
December 2014: Two Opportunities of a Lifetime
Hockey Canada invited Christian to the last round of the selection camp.
While on a team bus to the selection camp in Hamilton, Christian received an email from Cornell University offering her a spot on the Cornell University Big Red women’s hockey team. It was her dream come true.
There are rules for when a player can publicly announce they’ve accepted an offer from a post-secondary school. “It was a little secret that I had to hold in for a while, but I was okay with that, knowing I was going to get to go,” she said.
Five days after receiving Cornell’s offer, she made the national team’s final roster. She accepted both offers despite being hesitant to push her recently healed lung.
“That was the biggest week of my life.”
January 2015: Competing for Gold
Christian represented Canada on the big stage in Buffalo, New York, at the 2015 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship. Twenty nations competed in the week-long tournament.
Top hockey players from across Canada united on the ice and proudly wore the Canadian jersey. Christian said being on the ice for the first time in the Canadian jersey humbled her. She wanted to contribute in any way she could.
Fans filled the arena stands, and the televised tournament began.
In the final game of the preliminary round, Canada defeated the Czech Republic, and they advanced to the semifinals. Canada beat Russia in the semifinals, which sent them to the finals against their biggest rival, the United States.
Canada and the United States both had two goals on the board when the third-period buzzer rang. The gold medal game went into overtime.
“I felt more emotion in that game than any game I had ever played in,” she said.
Despite a strong effort, the team lost to the United States. Christian returned to Winnipeg, and despite the medal finish, she thought about the prospect of being injured again.
“You can recover from an injury, but it still affects you mentally, and it will always sit in the back of your mind,” she said.
Shortly after Christian returned home, she travelled to Prince George, British Columbia, with Team Manitoba to compete in the 2015 Canada Winter Games. She led Team Manitoba into the opening ceremonies as the lantern bearer.
During this hockey season, Christian played on the St. Mary’s Academy Flames Prep Team, Team Manitoba, and Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team. She was the definition of an elite athlete.
August 2015: Problems Before Cornell
There are three stages for women in the Hockey Canada program. The first stage is Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team. The second stage is Canada’s National Women’s Development Team, and the third stage is Canada’s National Women’s Team – the team that competes at the Winter Olympic Games.
Christian received an invitation to the second stage. She packed her bags and headed for the development camp in Calgary.
“It was a goal of mine to stay in the program and keep moving up,” she said.
During the camp’s fitness testing, Christian started to experience symptoms she had been wary of since 2014. She was dizzy and groggy but didn’t know why. She felt like she was going to faint. Christian withdrew from the camp because she couldn’t ignore the mysterious symptoms.
Hockey Canada booked her a first-class flight back to Winnipeg to make sure she got home safely.
While back home in Winnipeg, Christian had little time to prepare herself to move to Cornell in Ithaca, New York. Rushed, unable to process what had happened, and nervous about moving forward, she continued to pursue her hockey career.
Christian had lost confidence in her health. She feared the unknown. How could she take care of an injury if she didn’t know what was causing her symptoms?
Christian arrived at Cornell worrying if she had brought a lingering injury.
January 2016: Fainting Becomes a Reality
During an away game against Union College in a small town in New York, Christian’s fainting feeling returned. Mid-game, she said she started to feel flu-like when she was on the ice. She skated for the puck, but her vision started to blur.
“I felt my legs going and the next thing I knew I was laying on the ice,” she said.
Christian opened her eyes to see her trainer crouched next to her. Fainting was something Christian said she had never experienced before.
Christian didn’t finish the game. Instead, she sat in the stands and watched the game’s remaining minutes. She didn’t suit up for the next game. The situation took a toll on her mental health.
“A hidden injury is just as painful as a physical one,” she said.
February 2016: No Health Answers
After a game in Rhode Island against Brown University, Christian’s all too familiar symptoms swept over her. Her coach gave a post-game speech in the dressing room.
“I started to feel like I was losing my vision,” she said, “I needed to hang my head down.”
Christian collapsed to her knees and fainted on the dressing room floor. Her trainer rushed over to help.
“I was confused, and I was frustrated,” she said.
Health tests for breathing, nutrition, and asthma became part of Christian’s daily schedule. The end of the hockey season was fast approaching, and she planned to tackle her health issue during the off-season.
“My body felt like it was at its breaking point,” she said.
Christian said her symptoms could have been from several things, but the tests were inconclusive. Her unresolved health condition was something she just had to deal with.
She said she felt like her education was slipping because she was too sick and run down to attend her classes. She navigated her physical health challenge while struggling with an identity crisis too.
“My whole identity was a hockey player,” she said, but she wasn’t happy anymore. “I had sort of made up the decision in my mind, but I hadn’t said it out loud to anyone or myself even, that maybe this is the end,” she said.
Christian scored in the first period during an away game against Clarkson University.
Shortly after she scored, she fought for the puck. “I felt my shoulder pop, then I couldn’t hold my stick,” she said. Christian was in shock, and she skated to the bench.
“I couldn’t move my right arm.”
She went to the dressing room and slowly took her equipment off. Christian’s trainer wrapped her arm in a sling. She sat in the stands.
“I remember so vividly the feeling of, ‘this is what’s it going to be like. I’m just going to be sitting and watching’,” she said. “Hockey didn’t feel safe for me anymore, and it really finalized the decision I had been going over in my head. It put me over the edge.”
After the game, the team went on a long, bumpy bus ride back to Cornell. Christian went for an X-ray the next day. She’d separated her shoulder.
It was the end of the road.
“That was my last game of the season, and the last game I have ever played.”
Christian had a meeting with her coach, where she vocalized her decision to stop playing hockey. She said her coach was supportive, respected her decision, and helped her throughout the process.
At what point does a person know a sacrifice will give them a greater gift than winning? Christian had more questions than clarity about her health. Her only option was to quit the sport she had dedicated her life to.
According to a study by the National Library of Medicine, sports medicine primarily focuses on male athletes. The study found that injury prevention planning for female athletes may not be as effective because of the missing research.
The scarcity of information about injuries in female sports leaves unanswered questions about why women are more susceptible to common sports injuries in the first place.
Christian had no choice but to quit hockey. She had an undiagnosed health issue, and she couldn’t play the sport without being injured.
If the 2017 study stating women experience concussions differently had come out 10 years before Christian’s second concussion in 2014, instead of five years after, her second concussion may have been preventable.
Concussions in female athletes are one of the only sports injuries to recently find research headway. Across the board, recent studies have found where there’s a men’s and women’s version to compare, the women’s leagues have higher concussion rates — sports like soccer, hockey, basketball, and baseball.
There are only theories behind the higher reported concussion rates in women’s sports and no proven argument answering why. An article by BBC Future found some theories about the higher concussion rate are neck strength, style of play, hormones, concussion knowledge, and nerve fibres. Another theory in the article is because societal gender norms push men to be tough, they may hide their symptoms. Does this prove there is a severe need for more awareness of an injury’s seriousness? Outdated societal gender norms shouldn’t pressure a person to cover up a medical condition, especially pain.
The lack of research between the sexes is part of the gender data gap. The gap exists because most data and research relating to injuries focuses on the male body.
For example, according to an article by Caroline Criado Perez on TIME, cars are 71 per cent less safe for women than men because crash test dummies were designed based on the average male.
The gender data gap doesn’t just measure health. It also measures education, economics, and politics. In an article on The World Economic Forum, the global gender data gap will take 100 years to close based on the current progress.
September 2016: Finding a New Passion
Christian returned to Cornell in the fall and rebuilt her identity without hockey. An old teammate mentioned joining the A cappella group. Christian watched one A cappella performance and decided to join. She always had a love of music but could never commit herself to it because of her busy schedule. She revisited her love for music and hasn’t looked back.
She stepped out of her comfort zone and joined more arts classes like creative writing. She embraced her new interest in music. She re-learned how to read music, and at one point, rented a violin.
“It just felt like I was finding a whole other side of my personality and mind,” she said.
Christian studied and sang her way through the next three years at Cornell until she graduated in 2019.
August 2019: Performing on a New Stage
Christian stood on the front lawn of her friend’s house in Winnipeg. She held her white guitar and performed on the big stage. The band played music at a show they named the Lawn Concert. Her two band members, a drummer and a guitarist, were next to her. Parents, relatives, and friends sat on lawn chairs in the grass and watched.
“I felt so much joy it didn’t matter that it wasn’t a big band in a concert hall. It was just so special to be performing and doing something that felt so right and made me so happy. I felt like a star, and I lived that high for a while,” she said.
Christian still doesn’t have any answers regarding her health issue. She has to be careful when doing things like blowing up balloons. She hasn’t played hockey since. She dedicates her time as an organizer with Good + Plenty WPG. Good + Plenty WPG is an arts and music promotion group aiming to make the music industry more inclusive in Winnipeg. Good + Plenty WPG is building a community of local artists to create and promote a welcoming music scene.
Revision note 31/05/2021: This article was updated to correct a city name and a quotation.