Until Thursday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had never been to Maine. But Dr. Michael “Micky” Collins asked Earnhardt to join him at the University of Southern Maine for a discussion about concussions and recovery, and Earnhardt quickly agreed.

“Micky gave me my life back twice,” said Earnhardt, one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history. “And when someone does that, you do whatever they ask the rest of your life.”

On a night entitled “Racing, Concussions and the Road to Recovery,” Earnhardt and Collins told an appreciative crowd at USM’s Hannaford Hall of Earnhardt’s battle with concussions and his recovery. Earnhardt, who retired in 2017 from full-time racing, had written about those topics in his book “Racing to the Finish, My Story,” but hearing him tell his story had a strong impact on the audience.

“I thought it was a great message,” said Katherine Noyes of Portland, who attended the event. “There was a very hopeful feel to it.”

Collins, a 1991 USM graduate, is regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on concussions. He is the director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Concussion Program and a professor in the department of orthopaedic surgery.

Earnhardt was referred to Collins in 2012 after he crashed during a test and began experiencing disturbing symptoms, such as loss of balance and anxiety. Collins assured Earnhardt everything would be all right and, indeed, he was cleared two weeks later.

When he left, Collins told Earnhardt to call him if symptoms returned. Well, after “many’ crashes, the symptoms returned.  “Every driver is going to be given a handful of wrecks during a year,” said Earnhardt. “That’s just part of the game, like being tackled on the football field. You just bounce back, get in the car and go again the next week.”

But Earnhardt didn’t call Collins. Instead, already having guidelines for recovery from Collins, he tried to take care of himself. “I could see the end of my career was out there and I was trying to get to it, without having to see Micky again,” said Earnhardt. “I was trying to get to the place where I could stop. And I was way short.”

Collins, having treated athletes from all sports, understood. “The power of what Dale just said is hard to overcome,” he said. “He wanted to manage it on his own and I completely understand it. But he was pretty sick when I saw him the second time.”

But in 2016, it took four months, not two weeks, for recovery. Collins gave him physical and visual exercises to work on for two hours every day to stimulate the areas of the brain that needed healing. Collins said Earnhardt was one of the “hardest-working patients I’ve treated.  I told him what to do and he did it extremely well, diligent and committed.”

Earnhardt gave much of the credit to his wife, Amy.

“If she had not been there, I would have gotten lazy,” he said. “There were days when I got up and I said, ‘I don’t want to do this right now, I’ll do it later.’ And she wouldn’t take that for an answer. It worries me that not everybody has someone that persistent in their lives. People need to hear how important the (recovery) work is. If you don’t do the work, you won’t see the results.

“This is a puzzle that needs to be put back together in order. It’s a systematic treatment and you can’t do the work in Month Four if you haven’t done the work in Month Three.”

These days, Earnhardt is an analyst on NBC’s NASCAR coverage. He has raced twice since retiring, finishing fifth at Darlington Raceway on Aug. 31. Concussions are not on his mind.

“When I was in concussion land, I worried about long-term effects a lot, would they come back?,” he said. “Today,  I worry about natural illnesses, just whatever everyone else worries about. I don’t think about concussions at all.”

“That’s pretty cool to hear,” said Collins. “Considering what he went through.”

 

 


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