Anneke Beerten was hit by a driver that ran a red light last August as she was driving home from a day of riding at Big Bear and has been struggling with recovering from a traumatic brain injury ever since. The 2015 Queen of Crankworx and three-time 4X World Champion has had success in every discipline of mountain biking she's tried her hand at and we're hoping to see her with a number plate back on her bike before too long. We caught up with her to find out more details about the injury, what some of the things she's been doing for rehab, and how she is doing eight months after the incident.
Tell us about your most recent concussion. How did it happen? What were the first days like, weeks, months?
Mid-August 2020 I was driving home from a day of riding up at Big Bear. While crossing the last intersection from home on a green light, I all of a sudden got hit in the driver's side of my pickup truck. It was a huge impact and came out of nowhere. I lost control of my truck, skidded all over the 6 wide lane intersection, and came to a stop. I was in shock, hyperventilating, scared, and not really aware of what just had happened. Everything was just a blur. I did a quick body scan and saw that I was okay. Before I knew it, the whole intersection was filled with police cars, fire trucks and, paramedics. With a little help from an outsider, I was able to get out of my truck, still shaken up and not really aware of what was happening. I did not lose my consciousness, everything was just a blur, and I stood on the sidewalk, still figuring out what the hell just happened. Unfortunately, the other person that hit me had ran the red light.
My pickup truck got totalled and I got picked up by a friend and went home with him. That evening after the adrenaline was out of my body, I got a severe headache, stiff neck, memory loss, blurry speech and knew I was concussed. I immediately contacted my physiotherapist Dr. Joe Houde and my doctor Dr. Sten Kramer explaining to them what happened and that I needed to do a concussion test and neck and body exam. The next morning, I did the baseline concussion test and failed badly. After that, I went to see my doctor. He did some tests and examined me and came to the conclusion I sustained a concussion and whiplash. He suggested that I would go and see a sports concussion specialist.
The first days and weeks were miserable, with severe headaches, nausea, dizziness, insomnia, vertigo, neck pain, short memory, in a fog, and very sensitive to light and noise. All I could do was lay in bed or on the couch.
I was able to start seeing a concussion specialist at the Concussion Rehabilitation center. Dr. Patel has been working with many athletes. The first few weeks were very heavy and intense, I felt so out of place going there, I was surrounded by old people, some with dementia or recovering from strokes and such. I couldn't balance on one leg or walk in a straight line, with some exercises the nausea was intense that I often broke down in tears. I was having a problem with my left eye going into a spasm with certain exercises. Days became weeks, weeks became months and now, 8 months later I made some good improvements but still going to brain rehab every week to work on my progress. Next to brain rehab I also started going to vision therapy because of my vision problems. The neuro connection between the eyes, brain, and vestibular system is damaged and with therapy and rehab, I am creating new neuro-pathways.
I've been very motivated and determined these past 8 months to overcome this brain injury. Luckily, I have more good than bad days now. In the beginning I was only able to do short walks, then I started playing a bit of tennis by myself against a wall and some basketball, this all to work on my vision and hand and eye coordination. Since a few weeks I've been able to go on short e-bike rides and being able to do that again makes me feel very happy and it reminds me why I like riding so much. Riding has always been an outlet for me, and once that is gone, I'm just not me.
Why do you think it has been so difficult to recover from?
Because this was an extremely hard impact on both my neck and brain. Every concussion is different and most of my damage was done in the cerebellum of my head, and some of my neuro pathways got damaged. This type of brain injury just takes time to recover.
What does your daily therapy and rehab look like?
Depending on the day of the week I have different kinds of rehab and therapy. Currently, I am going to vision therapy 4-hours a week, I go to brain rehab for 1 hour and I see my physio once a week, I have counseling once a month, and I have checkup appointments with a neuro specialist, sports concussion specialist, and my doctor once a month. Next to that, I have a daily routine with therapy exercises I do at home. Depending on how I feel I try to go to the gym twice a week and also try to ride twice a week.
My rides and gym sessions are nothing like they were before. With both I have about a 1-hour threshold at the moment, if I try to do more it will result in overstimulation of the brain and will often cause a headache and neck tension. With riding, I have to make sure I keep my heart rate low, anything above 150bpm makes my head feel like it is going to explode. I currently just started riding my Specialized Turbo Levo e-bike on an easy cross-country trail at home. On the road, I make sure I go to a place that has not too much traffic like a park or a bike path. The noise and the distraction of the traffic cause overstimulation to the brain easily.
What do you know now about head injuries that you didn't know a year ago?
A lot!! I had no idea that it could cause all these symptoms and that you can end up in a pretty dark place. I also learned that you should never underestimate a brain injury! You can't see the severity of the injury, not from the outside, and often not even on brain scans. Luckily, I am surrounded by amazing doctors and specialists and now a day there is much more knowledge on brain injuries. But I can't stress enough that after you've hit your head that you need to go and see a specialist or someone that can perform a concussion test on you and make sure you don't return to riding and racing too quickly and get the right help to recover.
On top of the head injury, you are fighting to be able to continue living in the US. Can you say anything about that?
Yes, for over a year I have been trying to apply for a green card in the US. For the past years, I've always been in the US on a temporary visa, but I would like to secure my future here in the US and not have to stress every few years on trying to apply for a visa. Unfortunately, I have been denied twice and I just filled my application to the US immigration for the 3rd time. Fingers crossed I will get approved.
Do you think you will be able to compete again?
That is my main goal, motivation, and drive at the moment. I've been racing since the age of 4, it runs in my blood and I truly love it. The thought of not being able to compete anymore kills me.
What has been the hardest part?
Mentally keeping it together is the hardest part. There have been many days that I can't do anything else than lay in bed or on the couch and let time pass by. In those moments I can not handle watching TV or scroll on my phone, all I can do is stare at the wall or close my eyes. Dealing with headaches for days at a time has been extremely draining, then on top of that, I'm dealing with sleep disruption and get about 4 to 6 hours of sleep a night. The list of symptoms that I have are long; Motion sickness, nausea, dizziness, vertigo, sensitivity to noise (earplugs are my best friends), feeling more emotional and it is challenging having to deal with this from the moment I get up in the morning till the moment I go back to bed.
Next to dealing with this injury, there is also the financial stress with medical bills and dealing with a lawsuit. It also has been challenging for me on how to share this road to recovery with the rest of the world. My sponsors have all been extremely supportive and I feel grateful for everything that they do for me. But a part of me is often scared of losing my sponsors when they see my struggles, I feel very vulnerable. One day I hope to have the courage to share more of this road to recovery, but at the moment I often have a hard time looking at videos of myself in rehab.
Although this has been difficult, I feel very lucky and grateful that I got back to the point of being able to ride again. This all could’ve been way worse, and I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the heartwarming messages I’ve been receiving from my fans and followers. It is truly inspiring, and I’ve received many massages from people with TBI’s or other injuries that are way worse than mine. And hearing these stories from other people and seeing how strong they are is really inspiring.
What are you most looking forward to?
I'm mostly looking forward to getting back to my old self and normal life. I feel far away from the person I was before the accident. I was always on the go! Love traveling, adventures, racing, riding moto, supping, camping and, hanging out with friends. I know better days are right around the corner and now that I am riding again, I feel that the puzzle is falling back into pieces quicker.
I'm also looking forward to the day I can see my family again. Because of covid and my visa, I am unable to travel back and forward to the Netherlands and it has been 2 years since I've been home. In times like these, I miss my family a lot.