Julie Sterner '00/'07

Unlike a Broken Bone

Unlike a broken bone, with a brain injury, you can't put a cast on it, and you can't show that there is an injury," said 33-year-old Julie Sterner '00/'07, Principal of Dover Middle School, who has something in common with Hillary Clinton: both have suffered from a concussion. "I would have loved to wrap my head with caution tape so people understood that I had an injury."

Photos reprinted with permission of the York Daily Record/York Sunday News.

‌According to Jessica Boyette-Davis, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology at York College, "concussion is a mild form of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) resulting from a blow to the head and affecting approximately 1.7 million people in the U.S. each year." She said while most of the research focuses on sports-related concussions, there are other causes, including car accidents and, often, falls. "The person may briefly lose consciousness after a blow to the head, followed by a period of amnesia. Other symptoms include headache, feeling confused or dazed, nausea, irritability, and/or drowsiness. Because these symptoms are so general, they may be overlooked."    

At first, Sterner did not realize what had happened to her. She received a concussion at a school dance-a-thon in April 2011. She was racing another student in a bounce house-type track when the bungee cord snapped her backwards and she hit her head on the floor of the bounce house. "They aren't as soft as everyone would think!" she said. "I knew that I had a headache, but it wasn't until the next day that I started with confusion and being off balance."

Before heading to work, she drove to the doctor's office thinking she had a migraine. He immediately made her call for a ride, and she went to the ER at York Hospital for a CAT scan.

Julie Sterner '00/'07 pic 2 Sterner was sent to the neurologist, where it was confirmed through a variety of tests that she had a serious concussion. She was referred to Health South for speech and physical therapy to address her memory and balance issues. She completed the physical therapy program in about two weeks, but speech therapy lasted for more than five months. Sterner did not return to work for full days until September, and continued with her therapy until November. She worked with Speech Therapist Heather Barr, who used the Interactive Metronome (IM) Program to help Sterner regain her multitasking abilities and capacity to retain information.

IM works for people of all ages who have a variety of conditions affecting their cognitive and physical abilities, according to the program's website. Sterner described it as a program that retrains the brain to be able to multitask, and said she would listen to the cowbell sound through headphones while asked to do other tasks. In the beginning, she said, "I hated it and was unable to keep a beat with the machine while also completing other tasks (alphabetizing words, repeating numbers, etc.), but by the end, I would compete with myself to get better scores than the last, and was able to see my progress." She said, "When I started the program, I was unable to read as the words all ran together, and I couldn't focus long enough to put it all together," she said. "This was scary as I worried about not being able to work."

Sterner's work means a lot to her. She was able to connect with local administrators and school districts through YCP's programs and said, "I believe this was the benefit of staying close to home and the reason for quick employment after graduation."

After completing the Educational Leadership program at YCP, she was offered an Assistant Principal position in March 2008 in the district where she was teaching. Three months later, the Principal position at the Intermediate school opened, and she was offered the job. While she was nervous about the quick move, Sterner said her preparation at YCP and the mentors she kept in contact with, helped her to survive the initial months in her new role.

When she underwent treatment for concussion, Sterner appreciated and relied on support from her family and colleagues at work to get through months of rehabilitation. "I had a lot of support from my family during this time as I was unable to drive or do anything around the house. My son had just turned five, and was concerned because he couldn't roughhouse with me! My colleagues at work were extremely helpful and my Assistant Principal Galen Rupp '08 (also a YCP grad) took on my role, and finished out the school year on his own. It broke my heart not to finish the school year with the students."

During the first week, as recommended, Sterner slept for 20 hours a day, only getting up long enough to eat and take medicine since her brain needed to heal. She said that a common misconception about concussion is not being able to rest or sleep. "The brain needs time to heal and we use our brain for everything; therefore resting or sleeping is the only thing we can do to heal."

In addition to seeking medical attention sooner rather than later, her advice to anyone with a suspected concussion is always to rest and not rush the return to school or work. "I try to get students to understand that they need to rest — which means no TV, reading, gaming, etc." she said.   

Speech Therapist, Heather Barr, and the physical therapy staff of Health South came to educate Sterner's staff at the school on the causes and treatments for concussions. This helped the staff to better understand Sterner's situation as she needed reminders and other small modifications upon her return to work.

How is Sterner now? "I have no restrictions or continued treatment. At times, when I am in a stressful situation, I do not seem to remember things. I am also not able to remember the names of all of my students (like I could prior to the accident). This is frustrating for me but the students seem to understand. Heather [Barr] said this is something I may never get back and, honestly, if that is all I have to deal with — I am okay with that."

She added, "I continue to work on educating parents when their students receive concussions. Having this experience allows me to relate to the students and offer the best return protocol for them. I am currently attending training on creating a concussion team to work with students and staff.

Otherwise, I am loving my position as an educational leader, and use my misfortune to educate others and connect with students."