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Spot News Writing
Third Place
Deb Williams, RacinToday.com

Doctor: Junior ‘Pretty Sick’ on First Visit

DARLINGTON, S.C. –  Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion-like symptoms were so severe when he first visited the University of Pittsburgh’s concussion program that Dr. Micky Collins said Sunday his primary objective was to see the third-generation driver “become a human being again.”

“When I first saw Dale a month-and-a-half ago I can tell you he was pretty sick,” Collins, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion program, said at Darlington Raceway prior to Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500. “He was having problems with the vestibular [sensory] system, with the ocular system and with some anxiety and mood issues that is very much associated with these problems.

“We have very specific treatments that can treat these different problems that Dale’s experiencing. He has been very diligent about doing his therapies and … we are seeing the benefits of that. When I first saw Dale, my goal was to see Dale become a human being again and I can tell you with confidence that is occurring in front of our eyes.”

Earnhardt has pointed to an accident at Michigan in June as triggering his symptoms that led him to step out of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Even though the accident doesn’t appear to be serious, Collins noted a concussion occurs when the brain moves inside the skull and an energy problem occurs with the cells. He said there were six different types of concussions:

Cognitive issues or thinking problems.

Problems with the vestibular system which allows one to interpret movement and motion and stabilizes one’s vision when the head was moved; interpret complex visual information.

Ocular or eye movement problems, moving one’s eyes in tandem.

Migraine.

Neck.

Anxiety and mood related problems.

Earnhardt said he felt his recovery was progressing well, he had started to see improvements, but he didn’t belong in a race car at this time.

“When we first went to see Mickey I anticipated the experience to be similar to what I had in the past,” Earnhardt said, referring to 2012 when he missed a few races due to concussion problems. “That we would work on getting better and it would happen in a relatively short period of time and I would drive a car before the end of the season. I think as we continued to go get evaluated we realize that it is going to be a bit more of a process.”

Collins said by not clearing Earnhardt to drive he felt they could focus on getting him well and reduce the stress that was associated with it.

“Stress and concussion don’t get along well and we see stress can really exacerbate and worsen things,” Collins explained. “I don’t think it’s coincidence that since we made that decision we are starting to see a lot of progress that I’m excited about.”

Collins said he treated Earnhardt in 2012 and some of the findings in regards to the current injury were different and more extensive.  

“The more I do the more I stress those systems,” said Earnhardt, who has been cleared to go anywhere and do anything he wants. “The worse thing I can do is sit on the couch. I feel awesome when I’m at home, but any time I leave the house, I lose about 20 percent, if I’m rating myself on a scale from 1 to 100.  He says do that more, push yourself and you will see those symptoms start to fade in those environments that are upsetting you.”

Earnhardt said he would test a Sprint Cup car before returning to the driver’s seat fulltime. He also noted he was currently completing all of his sponsor requirements and appearances. Team owner Rick Hendrick said he expected his driver to be back in the No. 88 for 2017 Speedweeks at Daytona.

“He’s going through vision therapy, he’s going through exercise therapy,” Collins said.

Earnhardt said the first four or five weeks were “really difficult.”

“I was very ill and it was hard to enjoy even the simplest activities,” Earnhardt said. “The past couple of weeks, I’ve really gotten to where I feel a lot more comfortable about going out and doing and being out and about and being observed. I go to Target or somewhere and I have symptoms and I might stumble across the aisle or something, or need a little more sidewalk than a normal guy. But I’ve got to put myself through those situations for that to sort of correct itself.”

Earnhardt said it would be nearly impossible to go through his current situation if it wasn’t for his fiancée, Amy Reimann.

“She even does the exercises that I’m doing just to be healthy herself,” Earnhardt commented.

Earnhardt doesn’t consider retirement an option.

“I think that I have the passion and the desire to drive,” he said. “I enjoy it. My heart is there to continue. If my doctor says that I’m physically able to continue, then that’s an easier decision for me to make. It’s not something that I think about. We’re trying to focus on just getting well and getting normal. Getting normal and just having a good quality of life going forward for the next many, many years is the first goal. I haven’t really put a lot of thought into the future until I get well.”