At a glance, Austin Collie and Rand Kerr don’t appear to have a lot in common.
Collie is a former BYU football star wide receiver who played professionally in the NFL and is currently playing in the Canadian Football League.
Kerr is the CEO of Lakeview Hospital in Bountiful, a successful administrator who has worked for a variety of hospital systems.
But both men have dealt with the challenging effects of concussions.
That’s what brought both of them to Cognitive FX, a cutting-edge center for concussion rehabilitation and research located in Provo.
Dr. Alina Fong and Dr. Mark Allen established the clinic to take the research that has been done on brain injuries and translate it into improving treatment.
And both Collie and Kerr say they have become beneficiaries.
Collie's story is probably the more high-profile, particularly for those who follow Cougar football, but Kerr's is the more dramatic.
Their journeys have been different and they are at different places on the road to complete recovery.
Here is a look at their experiences and also the stories of the doctors who have developed the medical approach that has had such a huge impact in the lives of the two successful men.
For 18 months, Kerr's life and that of his family were completely altered due to a series of accidents.
"I had a series of hits, so I started out pre-concussed," he said. "I had three hits to my head in about a month’s time with the last hit being the doozy. I used to make recurved longbows -- for mental health, ironically. In making one of the bows, I was stretching the limb with the bow in a contraption above my head. The contraption slipped and the hardwood came down and hit me at full draw. That was what caused it. A month later I was out shooting a bow at full draw and the top limb snapped, coming back and hitting me."
His wife, Holly Kerr, said that it didn't take long for it to become obvious that Rand wasn't the same.
"He missed quite a bit of work, but then after he went back, when he’d come home, he was just so worn out that he couldn’t do anything at home," she said. "We have four kids, and for 18 months, he hadn’t been able to attend any school activities, any sporting activities, any concerts, family gatherings, Christmas. I get emotional when I think about it. It changed our life as a family. We got into a new norm where Dad was always resting, and being quiet because he was very sensitive to sound."
With his healthcare position, Rand had access to excellent physicians, but the counsel always seemed to be the same.
"Everyone has told us for a year and a half that you just have to wait it out," Holly said.
As the months past, Rand said he never wanted to quit -- but he wondered whether his brain was going to make it.
“I knew I had the grit to push through,” he said. “What I didn’t know is if I had enough brain to push through. The reason why we contacted Cognitive FX was that I asked all of our family to pray and to help me, because I literally felt like my bearings were wearing out. I felt like (my brain was) running so high to do the basics, I felt like I was going to blow my engine out. Coming here was a desperate hope.”
The Kerr family had dealt with it for so long that they just didn’t know if anyone could do anything.
"We sat in here with Dr. Fong and she said, ‘You’ve come to the right place. We’re going to get you better,’ " Holly said. "I was like, ‘No way.’ But when we left, we said that even if he just got a little improvement, it would be worth it. But we got a lot more than we hoped for. It’s amazing."
Fong said it was like Rand “was driving on the freeway in second gear.”
“His gears were burning,” she said. “His brain was working harder than it ever needs to, harder than yours or mine would to do a very basic task.”
The first step was to get a Functional NeuroCognitive Imaging (fNCI) scan. According to Cognitive FX, an fNCI utilizes functional MRI technology to show a three-dimensional map of brain regions while a patient is performing a cognitive test. It then ensures accuracy on multiple levels while also providing a system of analysis and interpretation.
Fong explained that this tool allows them to specify what treatment will be most effective for an individual patient.
"This is what sets us apart," she said. "We have a comprehensive battery of seven tests. We are looking at every aspect of cognitive function that we know is affected by brain injury. We are very comprehensive. Then we take those patient’s activation, whether they are normal or abnormal, and look to see what areas of the brain are working well, what areas of the brain aren’t working well, what areas are working overtime to compensate for areas that aren’t working well. We tailor our treatment to that."
Rand said he was so worn out by his first scan that he needed assistance walking and even after leaving the clinic, he sat in his car for an hour before being able to drive to his sister-in-law's house.
He returned the following day to begin the specified treatment plan, some of which had him questioning what was going on.
"They had my treatment schedule set up and it went from one thing to another," Rand said. "They have such a broad therapy plan here compared to anything else we’ve experienced. When the physical therapist was massaging my neck that first time, it felt good but I was like, ‘What in the world are we doing here?’ But when he got done, I realized it felt really good and it was almost like something started clicking. After each different test -- there were parts that were frustrating because I knew I wasn’t performing -- but I realized I was improving. I felt my head coming back."
After just a couple of days of treatment, Rand said he felt like someone had gone in and unclogged his brain. He talked about how he hadn't even been able to sing along with the radio in the car, but after the second day he had the radio cranked up and was singing the whole way home, an experience he called "euphoric."
Holly said the difference in Rand was unbelievable.
"When he came home after two days of this, it was like, Dad’s back," she said. "I told him I didn’t realize how much I missed him. I’m not just a caretaker. He was fun to be around, not just tired and exhausted all the time. I can’t imagine how he felt for 18 months. Unless you’ve observed him for a year and a half, you can’t appreciate the improvements."
Allen explained that after a brain injury like a concussion, people are getting done what they need to get done.
"What's happening is they are using alternate strategies to do it, so they might be overworking one part," he said. "If your knee is out, you might be putting too much stress on your ankle to compensate. We see that going on in the brain. It's pushed out of whack."
Some people then end up having their brains sticking with that bad alternate strategy and so their symptoms don't resolve themselves.
Fong said often the best way to describe what they are doing is pushing the reset button.
"We are coaxing the brain back to the default way it's been doing things for your whole life," Allen said. "It can be done in a week or a few days if it is targeted. You can get it to snap back."
Rand said he feels like he has gone from functioning at 60 percent to functioning at 90 percent -- and that he feels like he has a destination to shoot for as he gets back the last 10 percent.
Collie, on the other hand, has worked through the impact of the concussions he experienced as a football player and is now focused on improving the strength of his brain.
"The brain is just like any other muscle," he said. "It’s a more complex muscle and I don’t think we understand it in its entirety, but we understand that we have to rehab it just like you would a knee injury or an ankle injury. That’s what I’m doing here, is making sure that I rehab my brain so that I won’t have issues. I feel great. My head feels great, thanks to Cognitive FX."
The problem Collie has in the world of football is that the success of the fNCI approach is still relatively unknown.
"I think if that were the case, I feel like I’d be on a team right now," he said. "Not a lot of people have the information that this place has. I’ve had numerous tests done by several doctors in the NFL and passed them all, but it’s that general idea of the brain injury that teams don’t want to touch. I just don’t think they have all the information that they need. We’re just scratching the surface."
Fong and Allen understand that acceptance of this approach is a work in progress.
"It's an uphill battle in the medical community, one that we've been fighting and gradually been gaining more and more acceptance," Allen said.
Fong said organizations like pro sports teams will need to have a paradigm shift, but believes that once they realize what a useful tool it can be for them, they'll be able to make better decisions.
But the doctors also emphasized that the fNCI and the treatments aren't just for football players or CEOs. They said they have tried to make the program as affordable as possible.
"We have never had a patient come in and complain about the price after they'd left," Fong said. "Usually patients have gone through doctors and spent more than what we charge seeing all the other specialists. Most are here because nothing else has worked."
But it's also not just for those who have had concussions.
"You'd be surprised how many people come in here with no injury at all who get scans because they want to know where they are," Fong said. "It's cognitive enhancement."
The people who have seen the benefits of the technology and become the biggest advocates for the clinic. Rand recently said he has referred 10 people to Cognitive FX in the last month.
"We are a community-based practice," Fong said. "Everyone we have seen here is word of mouth. We are small. We really care about people as people, not just as patients. This is the only facility like this in the country, in the world -- and it works. We're here, so use us."
For more information on Cognitive FX, go to the clinic's website at www.cognitivefxusa.com.