Alex Danson-Bennett MBE is recognised as one of the finest hockey players Britain has ever produced. Having been vice-captain of the GB women’s hockey team for their historic gold medal performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she competed in multiple international championships amassing 306 caps for her country and a record-equalling 115 goals.
But everything changed in an instant when a seemingly mild head injury had a devastating impact that would force her to retire from the game.
Alex was on holiday in Kenya with her then boyfriend, now husband, who is also called Alex. The couple were enjoying a meal in a local restaurant when she threw her head back in laughter after he told a joke, hitting her head on the brick wall behind.
“At the time I thought ‘that was hard, that wasn’t great’,” said Alex. “But I just went back to the apartment, went to sleep and ignored it. When I got up the next morning things got progressively worse.
I returned home and had to lie in a dark room, I couldn’t tolerate any noise or sound. I really wasn’t very well. Six weeks after the injury I started being violently sick and having seizures, so I was rushed into hospital.
Alex received a wide range of tests, eventually being diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury. Having experienced concussion before during her hockey career, she was shocked to be told that it could take many months to recover from the injury.
She said: “In the beginning I literally couldn’t do anything, but then you have to manage how much you take on as you start to get better. I’d get frustrated because I’d want to do something then very quickly feel terrible.
“I was very slowly building back up, and in the early days my husband had to do everything, like walking me to the bathroom, liaising with doctors, driving me to every appointment and cooking all the meals. He was a constant source of support while every day I felt like I wasn’t the person I used to be.
“It’s been about two and a half years now and I’m much, much better than I was. But I still get headaches every day, I still have to manage the cognitive ‘load’, and screens are a big problem for me.”
In January 2020 Alex returned to hockey, but quickly realised that she would have to retire due to the ongoing effects of her brain injury. Since then, she has taken up coaching, runs her own hockey academy and works with Vitality to help people improve their health. Alex and her husband are also busy with the arrival of a new addition to their family, a daughter born in January 2021.
She said: “I manage my week now, spending time outdoors because that suits how I respond to artificial light. I think there’s a retraining your brain part of recovery, so it’s important to work and positively challenge my brain.
“I would say life is very different to what it would have been if I hadn’t hit my head. Two weeks before my injury I was walking the GB women’s hockey team out as captain. Two weeks after, I couldn’t walk to the bathroom or hold a conversation.
I’m not the same as I was but I’m living a happy, fulfilled life, I just have to manage the symptoms which I believe, in time, will go. If I can get to the end of 2021 and be headache-free, I’ll be absolutely delighted.
Alex recently found out that her mother regularly used the Headway helpline for support in the weeks and months following her injury.
She said: “For a family it’s a horrendous time, to see your loved one suffering so badly with no one helping or understanding. But Mum used to call the helpline just to speak to someone, and they reassured her and gave her snippets of information about brain injury.
“She found it an incredible service that she accessed regularly. I was too unwell to call myself, but as a resource for the family, it was incredibly useful.”
With a passion for raising awareness of brain injury, Alex has become a Headway Ambassador. She supports the charity’s Concussion Aware campaign to help more people enjoy sport while having a greater understanding of the dangers of concussion.
“I know my injury wasn’t in sport, but I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through in the last two and a half years,” said Alex. “If better concussion protocols, early management and early treatment can improve your recovery, which I believe it can, then I’d like to see that in place.
My advice would be to not do anything until you’re symptom-free. A few weeks seems like a long time, but two and a half years feels like an eternity so listen to your body, rest and don’t rush back.
Friends of Headway Individual membership Join/Renew