After aspiring Olympian Eleanor Furneaux was involved in a serious collision during her skeleton training, which left her battling the ongoing effects of her head injury, she made the decision to retire aged only 24. Here, she shares her story and her belief that sportspeople shouldn’t ‘push through’ despite injury
Former GB skeleton athlete Eleanor Furneaux had high hopes of following the footsteps – or sled tracks – of Olympic Gold medallists Lizzy Yarnold and Amy Williams.
But with her shot at glory in sight, a devastating head injury caused her to sacrifice her aspirations and retire at just 24 years old.
Eleanor’s journey to becoming a skeleton champion began as a student in the city of Bath, the home of British Skeleton. The sport, which Eleanor encountered purely by chance, sees athletes racing down winter slopes on bobsleighs at speeds of up to 140km/h.
Eleanor was encouraged by a friend to take part in a talent search for athletes who have the potential to compete in Olympic competitions. Despite attracting over 1,000 applicants, Eleanor’s natural flair for the sport eventually led to her being selected for the GB Skeleton Team. She continued to study alongside her training, while also working a part-time job at a bar.
“It was busy, but I felt incredibly lucky to be in that position, to be able to travel the world and see these beautiful places, to be training and competing. Until then I had never even been skiing,” she remembers.
Then in January 2018, everything changed. While training for a race in Germany, a minor accident was followed by another, more serious crash the next day, which was destined to end Eleanor’s skeleton career and change the course of her life.
“On the second day of training, I hit my head and cracked my helmet,” recalls Eleanor. “The assessment wasn’t done until the next morning, and I passed it.
“Then came the day of the competition.
“I was half-way down the track and I skidded out of control while turning a corner. My head got completely smashed. I can’t really remember the rest, everything went black. At the end of the race, I was transported back up the hill, but then I collapsed.”
Eleanor was flown home the next day. Over the next few weeks, she started to experience problems.
“I struggled with stringing sentences together. I had short-term memory loss as well. Sometimes I would even forget that I was in the middle of a conversation,” she recalls.
“I really struggled in supermarkets. I spent three months building up the confidence to go out to the shops again, but I still found the bright lights too painful and I got confused about what I was doing. It frightened me more than anything.”
Over the course of the year, Eleanor tried to return to training, but the impact of her injury was causing difficulties. Daily headaches, balance issues, tinnitus and ongoing sensitivity to lights and noises were continuing to disrupt her ability to train.
By December, she made a life-changing decision.
“Every time I tried training, it felt like taking one step forwards and ten steps backwards. It got to the point where I felt like I wasn’t making any progress,” she says.
“Following a fitness assessment, I decided to just be honest and say that it was time for me to retire.
“As an athlete you hope to retire on a career high, and it wasn’t the final run I was hoping for, but I wouldn’t risk hitting my head again.”
Eleanor’s decision – hailed as “courageous and responsible” by Headway – came at the cost of a promising career as an elite athlete, but it is not one she has any regrets over.
“Throughout the year I didn’t want to believe that I had to make that decision. I didn’t want to let my family and friends down, but when I announced that I was retiring, they were so glad,” says Eleanor.
“I knew, and they knew, that it wouldn’t be safe for me to continue and it was such a sense of relief when I knew I didn’t have to put myself in that position again.”
The world of sports is seeing an increasing awareness of the impact of head injuries. Recent incidents have prompted consideration over concussion management protocols, but there remains an implicit culture to push on, something Eleanor knows first-hand.
“You’ve got people supporting you, sponsoring you, everyone’s proud of you. But it’s so important to remember that they’ll support you and be proud of you no matter what,” she says.
“You know yourself as an athlete better than anyone; you know when you’re feeling top of your game and when you need to rest. It can be tough to hear, but if you push through an injury, it’s going to catch up with you – especially with a head injury.”
A year and a half on, Eleanor now works for a wealth management firm, but is keen to use her experiences to raise awareness of the importance of taking responsible action following a head injury.
“No matter what level you play, it’s so important to remember that you have the rest of your life ahead of you and you can’t risk something as important as your head,” she adds.
“You think you’re doing the right thing by pushing through, but everyone wants you to stay healthy for the rest of your life.
“You’ve got a life to live after sports.”
* Eleanor’s story has been reproduced with permission from Headway – the brain injury association, which has been leading calls for better approaches to head injury in sport via its Concussion Aware campaign. For more information, visit www.headway.org.uk.
£1m dedicated to MND research through 7 in 7 Challenge
A £1million fund has been created to lead new research into potential treatments for Motor Neurone Disease (MND) through the efforts of an iconic challenge by Kevin Sinfeld.
Kevin, director of rugby at Leeds Rhinos, raised over £2million through his 7 in 7 Challenge, inspired by his former team-mate and close friend Rob Burrow.
Rhinos legend Rob was diagnosed with MND in December 2019, and Kevin completed seven marathons in as many days to help boost badly-needed research into the condition.
Now, with £500,000 of the money raised through the 7 in 7 Challenge ring fenced for research, that sum has been matched by medical research charity LifeArc.
The move has created a £1million joint fund established by the MND Association and LifeArc, which will support research projects focused on developing new therapies or repurposing drugs already approved for use for other conditions.
“This is fantastic news and an amazing contribution from LifeArc,” says Kevin.
“When we set out to complete the 7 in 7 Challenge we hoped to raise awareness and funds to support the MND community but it is so wonderful to see the inspiration it has given people and organisations, like LifeArc, so they too can support the need for more research.
“Our hope, like that of everyone affected by this brutal disease including Rob, is that this money will make a real difference and help find the breakthrough we all desperately want.”
Researchers are now able to apply for a share of the funding, with the criteria that they will be expected to conclude their project within three years and be target driving with set milestones and a credible delivery plan – including a clear route to reach MND patients.
Dr Brian Dickie, director of research development at the MND Association says: “We are so grateful to LifeArc for this generous contribution and are looking forward to working with them to identify projects which have a real chance of making a difference to our community in the coming years.”
Melanie Lee, LifeArc’s chief executive, emphasised that the focus of the new funding is on boosting research around potential treatment options based on the latest understanding of the disease.
“The ambition around stimulating the search for new treatments fits with LifeArc’s approach over the last 25 years to translate early science into health care treatments or diagnostics that can transform patients’ lives,” she says.
“Our partnership with the MND Association is the latest in a series of strategic partnerships that maximise LifeArc’s expertise in translating strong discoveries from the lab into benefitting patients with conditions with few or no effective treatment options.”
What causes a stroke?
Over 100,000 people in the UK suffer a stroke each year, with there currently being around 1.2 million survivors living in the country.
Many people note that despite how common strokes are they remain unaware of what the actual causes of a stroke are.
Depending on which of the two types develops, causes and outcomes can differ.
What both have in common is they restrict blood flow to the brain. This leads to a reduction in the brain’s oxygen levels, which can cause tissue damage.
Here, NR Times breaks down why a stroke may occur and what risk factors there are behind each different type.
What are the different types of stroke?
There are two main types of strokes: ischaemic and hemorrhagic.
Ischemic strokes make up nearly 90 percent of all cases and they materialise when an artery which provides blood and oxygen to the brain becomes blocked.
A hemorrhagic stroke is much less common, but happens when an artery leading to the brain bursts and starts to leak blood around or in the brain.
Causes of an ischaemic stroke
The brain is only able to function properly when its arteries supply it with oxygen-rich blood, meaning any blockages can cause lasting damage.
With a lack of blood flow, the brain is unable to make enough energy to work. If this consists for more than a few minutes, brain cells will begin to die.
This is exactly what happens in an ischaemic stroke, but there are a range of reasons as to why these blockages develop.
One of the main causes is when the arteries around the head narrow, which makes it harder for the blood to pass through.
This can also lead to something called atherosclerosis, which is where substances in the blood (such as fat or cholesterol) stick to the sides of the arteries.
Blood can build up on these deposits, causing a further increase in pressure and a reduction to the brain’s oxygen supply.
There are a number of reasons for these blockages, with the most common ones being around a person’s lifestyle.
For example, smoking can increase the risk of a stroke by up to 50 percent.
This is because nicotine not only narrows the arteries, but it also makes the heart beat faster, causing an increase in blood pressure.
Excessive alcohol intake, obesity and high cholesterol levels are also all listed as major risk factors when it comes to ischaemic strokes.
Problems with the arteries around the heart can also lead to an ischaemic stroke.
Irregular heartbeats, heart attacks and other irregularities around this area can again limit the blood’s oxygen levels.
Causes of a hemorrhagic stroke
Hemorrhagic strokes are most common in people ages 45 to 70, but they affect a lot more younger people than an ischaemic stroke.
These are caused after the arteries around the brain burst and cause bleeding.
Depending on where the artery is can affect the outcome of the hemorrhagic stroke.
If the bleeding occurs within the brain, blood shooting out at high pressure can kill some cells.
Bleeding on the surface increases the pressure in the protective layer between the brain and the skull, potentially causing more cell loss.
This bleeding is normally caused by chronically high blood pressure. In many cases, the increased pressure can cause the arteries to expand and weaken, meaning a split in them is more likely to take place.
A rarer cause of hemorrhagic stroke is where the blood vessels around the brain are connected abnormally, causing further stress on the brain. These are congenital (present at birth) but the reason for their occurrence is currently unknown.
Again, the best way to reduce the risk of an hemorrhagic stroke is to make healthy lifestyle choices.
NHS pilots video service for epilepsy diagnoses
A new clinical video service which supports epilepsy diagnoses and management in the era of coronavirus and beyond has been launched in the UK.
vCreate Neuro allows registered patients and carers to share smartphone-recorded videos of potential seizures or unknown movements with their clinical team via a secure, NHS-trusted system.
The data and footage act as a visual aid to assist clinical teams with rapid precision diagnostics, creating a digitised clinical pathway that minimises the need for face-to-face clinic appointments and invasive tests.
The system is currently being piloted across Scotland and, following its initial success, across England including Great Ormond Street Hospital, Evelina London and Sheffield Children’s Hospital.
The system is available to families who are concerned that they, their child or loved one may be experiencing seizures or unexplained episodes including epilepsy.
Since May 2020, more than 2,000 families have shared over 5,000 videos with their clinical teams across the platform.
Dean MacLeod was referred to the service when her seven-year-old daughter, Olivia, began having unknown movements in May 2020.
Dean uploaded videos of Olivia during these episodes as Olivia’s seizures grew more frequent.
The videos were reviewed by Paediatric Neurology professionals at the Royal Hospital for Children, Glasgow, and, supported with telephone appointments, Olivia was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy and quickly started on treatment.
Speaking about her experience, Dean said: “I’ve found vCreate to be invaluable in Olivia’s journey since she started having seizures last summer.
“We live in a remote location on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, and we have a very limited paediatric service on the Island. The service has made it easy to access the specialist clinical knowledge needed by sending recordings of various seizure events to the Paediatric Neurology team at Glasgow.
“Since the diagnosis, I have kept in regular contact with the clinical team through the platform, sending videos and typically receiving advice from a Consultant within 24 hours which is fantastic. Between the vCreate service and telephone discussions, our family have not needed to have face-to-face consultations which has been hugely beneficial during the pandemic.”
Professor. Sameer Zuberi, consultant paediatric neurologist at the Royal Hospital for Children, Glasgow, said: “vCreate Neuro has transformed how we use carer-recorded video in our service. We are diagnosing epilepsy more rapidly, preventing misdiagnosis and saving unnecessary investigations. Families feel in more control and better connected to the service.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people experiencing seizures and seizure-like episodes, including children, have been unable to see a clinician.
Create Neuro aims to help by empowering patients to use asynchronous video technology for self-management, reducing the need for physical appointments.
Founder Ben Moore said: “We’re passionate about family-forward care, and worked closely with clinical teams, patients and carers to develop the vCreate Neuro service.
“The system aims to improve patient care, reduce the number of clinic investigations – and resulting costs to the NHS – and digitise the patient pathway. We want families to be in control of their healthcare journey and have a direct link to their clinical team despite the pandemic restrictions.”
The vCreate platform has been independently assessed and approved by Information Governance teams in over 100 UK NHS Trusts.
Within the platform, a clinical database is available as a learning resource for clinicians to study seizure types, events, and other symptoms.
Brain injury4 weeks ago
‘I’m sorry for handling the steering wheel with buttered fingers’
Case management4 weeks ago
New case management business continues to grow
Brain injury4 weeks ago
Sleep problems ‘can be worse with mild TBI’
Neuropsychology3 weeks ago
Mental health issues ‘may stem from childhood cognitive problems’
Stroke2 weeks ago
Stroke Association launches long-term stroke/COVID study
Stroke2 weeks ago
Surviving stroke: the transition from hospital to home
Community rehab4 weeks ago
Finding a voice for Richie
Brain injury3 weeks ago
Impact of COVID-19 on brain to be investigated