In August of 2011, everything was coming together for teenage surfer Harley Taich. She had recently made the USA travel team, was fresh off the plane from a trip to Tahiti, and headed into what would have been the start of a breakthrough year for the young competitor. After weeks in the powerful surf of the South Pacific, she was excited to be surfing the barreling wave at Point Mugu for the NVBC Point Mugu Surf Contest in Ventura, even if she was less than thrilled to be competing the day after getting off the plane. She breezed through the early rounds of the event, and scored an 8-point ride on her first wave of the finals. But on her second wave, her whole life changed.
“I was just puking sand. It felt like it was up in my brain. I just kept blowing it out and blowing it out, but it felt like it was never going to stop.”
Harley pulled into a clean barrel on the outside, but as she went for a snap on the inside, the water bottomed out on her at the shore, and she projected headfirst into the sand. She remembers little from the wave, except for when she got up after the fall. Then she recalls, “I was just puking sand. It felt like it was up in my brain. I just kept blowing it out and blowing it out, but it felt like it was never going to stop.” As she climbed up the rocky shore, a nearby paramedic saw her eyes roll back into her head, and scrambled to catch her before she fell. When she came-to, she was hysterically crying and screaming. She was combative, fighting against responders who tried to wrestle her onto the gurney. The only information the medics had came from onlookers who kept telling them, “she hit her head, she hit her head.”
Harley was taken to the ER, and diagnosed with a concussion. Yet even after being released, she felt incredibly ill on the drive home to San Diego. Unfortunately, her symptoms only got worse. When she started that first week’s homework, she recalls, “I read the same paragraph 8 times. I kept forgetting what I had read by the time I finished.” She tried to surf with her dad at the wave down the street, just to get her body moving. “I soon as I paddled out, the whole ocean started spinning. I freaked out. I begged my dad to paddle me in. I was so dizzy, he had to carry me up the rocks.”
As more time passed, her symptoms worsened. She could barely get out of bed without feeling unbearably nauseous. She had searing migraines that would last for 15 days straight. The medicines she took to combat the symptoms gave her horrible digestive problems. Oftentimes, she would get so dizzy in the shower, she would pass out. She’d hit her head, either re-concussing or preventing her brain from healing. She’d try to get up to go to the restroom in the middle of the night, and her dad would find her collapsed on the bathroom floor. She became severely depressed. Friends said talking to her was like talking to a rock. She no longer wanted to live. “I wasn’t there. I was a different person. I wasn’t happy, and I had no emotion. I was mean. I would cry for no reason.”
“The next time you come in, it’s going to be a brain bleed, and you’re going to die.”
Finally, after about 12 concussions, doctors sat Harley down. One told her, “Harley, you’ve been here too many times. The next time you come in, it’s going to be a brain bleed, and you’re going to die. I’m not telling this to you as a patient; I’m telling this to you as if you were my own daughter.” Harley got serious about her recovery. For a full year, she didn’t surf, she didn’t go to school, and she didn’t work. She just rested. It was “horribly boring,” but it was what her brain needed to heal.
She also began to turn her thinking around. She fought her depression. “It’s scary because you get to such a low point that you don’t even realize how depressed you are. Everything around you turns negative. It becomes, “Poor me, poor me, why did this have to happen to me?”” She turned to friend, Alex Gray, for words of advice. Gray told her, “Say hello to depression and then let it go with a blessing. Never let the dark beast win.” Gray’s words gave her a new outlook, and they helped her find her way through. She realized she could never heal with her negative attitude. Instead, she focused on her blessings and on the road ahead. Whenever she felt down, she would think about how grateful she was to have a roof over her head, healthy food to eat, and a family who loves her. She remembered, “My bad day is someone else’s good day.” She also focused on her goal to surf again, and it helped keep her motivated to take care of her body and allow it to heal.
“Say hello to depression and then let it go with a blessing. Never let the dark beast win.” -Alex Gray
She credits nutrition for healing her. What began as research to prevent migraines resulted in a complete overhaul of her diet. She cut out all processed foods, dairy, meat, and gluten. She ate all natural, juiced every day, drank shots of turmeric, ginger, and lemon, and increased her intake of anti-inflammatory foods. She replaced medicine with natural cures, for example, she scrapped her anti-nausea medicine in favor of apple cider vinegar and honey. She started acupuncture. She explains now, “Food is our medicine. Food is what healed me and got me on the path to recovery, not the medications.”
After a 4- year struggle, Harley is back. She began surfing (cautiously) 6 months ago. She’s begun to work again, and she took tests to finish her high school education. But perhaps most significantly, she wrote a children’s book called “Heads Up.” The book educates children about concussions, healing, and most importantly about acceptance, something she’s struggled with. “For 3 years, I wished I could have gone back and not surfed that contest. Now, finally, I wouldn’t go back. As much as I wanted that pro surfer lifestyle and it was a dream since I was a little girl, I wouldn’t take back what’s happened to me.” She’s found her new path incredibly rewarding. Especially since her article in Seventeen Magazine, she’s had girls reaching out to her from all over the world sharing their struggles with concussions and injuries. She’s able to offer them words of encouragement, sympathy, and support in ways that others can’t.
For these girls and others struggling with concussions and injuries, Harley offers words of advice,
“Just don’t give up, have hope. Look at the long-run in stead of the short term. Set your goals and do what you need to get there. Protect your head, protect your brain, love your body, and take care of yourself.”
For more about Harley and to purchase “Heads Up” visit www.headsup4kids.com.