by Amy Zellmer, Editor-in-chief
When Brooke Mills competed in her teen first pageant, she had no idea that she would eventually use pageantry as a platform to raise awareness about the devastating effects of concussions.
About a year after her first pageant Brooke suffered a concussion in gym class. While playing team handball, she was picking up a ball just as a boy went to kick it, accidentally kicking her in the left side of her face.
She was briefly knocked unconscious. While one boy helped her get up, another went to find the teacher, who didn’t see the accident happen. Brooke then tried to make her way to the nurse’s office, but ended up in the bathroom because she couldn’t remember where the nurse’s office was. She still has very little memory of that day in March of 2014, or the following week. She admits that her memory for most of the next year is a little unreliable.
Once she finally found the nurse’s office, the nurse did the SCAT test and called Brooke’s mother, Stephanie Mills, a Doctor of Chiropractic. Stephanie took Brooke to her office to examine her and give her a spinal adjustment. Then, after lunch, Brooke felt considerably better and insisted on going back to school, but fell asleep in English class. As a straight “A” student, she knew that something wasn’t right; she had never fallen asleep in class before.
She missed almost an entire month of school because all she could do was sleep. When she began her “return to learn” protocol, she went to half of a class and then the nurse’s office for the other half for the rest of the school year. Most of her teachers were accommodating and understanding.
“I was really scared. Although I was active in ballet, I had never played any sports so I didn’t fully know what a concussion was or what to expect. Kids at school told me I’d feel better in a few days — but I didn’t. It took two months to fully get back into school. I lost a lot of friends and was bullied because I’d changed so much. I couldn’t do physical activity or walk more than a quarter mile without having to sit down,” Brooke said.
Stephanie added that in chiropractic school in the late 90s they had learned that most concussions should resolve themselves in 7-10 days. Most medical professionals at the time saw concussions as mild injuries that would self-resolve and didn’t require any treatment plan. Stephanie felt helpless as she watched her daughter struggle with headaches, sleep problems, dizziness, eye sensitivity, moodiness, and was just not her usual self.
She had been referred to a “concussion specialist,” a physiatrist, but there was a long waiting list to see him. When they were finally sitting in his waiting room, they became concerned when they saw several teenagers leave his office with glazed–over, overly medicated looks on their faces. They were not surprised when the doctor only wanted to prescribe depression medication, pain killers, Adderall, and an experimental Alzheimer’s drug for Brooke. They left his office, never to return, or fill the prescriptions.
Stephanie and Brooke sought help from naturopaths, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), and other alternative therapies. “It was really hard to see my daughter suffering. When you have kids, you’d much rather have the illness or injury yourself than watch your kids go through it. It was heart-wrenching, all-consuming at time, and really expensive” Stephanie said.
In the fall and winter of 2014 Stephanie took Brooke to the Carrick Brain Center in Florida. “I knew about Dr. Carrick through the chiropractic profession. Once I knew Brooke wasn’t healing and needed more help, it was the first place I thought to go” Stephanie said.
Brooke’s sophomore year of school was challenging. Her grades were passing, but barely. Stephanie encouraged her to get back into jazz and ballet dancing, but she just couldn’t do it. Prior to her concussion, Brooke had been dancing 14 hours a week.
By the summer of 2015 Brooke could go on longer walks. She was enjoying reading again, and getting more physical activity. Additionally, her memory was improving. She was hopeful that her junior year would be better . . . and it was. She graduated in June 2016 after her Junior year, at age 17 and went on to graduate from New Hampshire Technical Institute with an associate’s degree in health science. She then spent one year at the University of New Hampshire before enrolling at Sherman College of Chiropractic in South Carolina.
She is thrilled to be starting chiropractic school and follow in her mother’s footsteps. Her goal is to be able to help others who have suffered a concussion.
Advocacy and Pageantry
About two months after her concussion Brooke started a blog titled “Finding my way.” People reached out to share their stories and tell her how much her story had helped them. The Brain Injury Association of New Hampshire asked her to be a peer-to-peer speaker. She wanted a way to share additional resources with the people she reached so she started #LESSENTHEIMPACT for education and awareness, as well as to be able to fundraise.
In November of 2015, Brooke and Stephanie started Concussion Awareness Day in New Hampshire. They emailed the governor’s office, requesting a proclamation and explained why it was important. After their success in New Hampshire they decided to do National Concussion Awareness Day (NCAD). They chose the third Friday of September because they felt it was far enough away from March’s National Brain Injury Awareness Day and because September is considered the start of many sports in high schools and colleges. They chose a Friday because they thought that schools would be more likely to hold an event on a Friday afternoon, and also so that it would never end up on a weekend if it were a set date.
They registered a trademark for National Concussion Awareness Day (NCAD) and approached the Brain Injury Association of America to partner with them to raise more awareness.. On September 16, 2016, they had their first successful NCAD. In 2019, NCAD was recognized federally with a senate resolution. “I am shocked at how many people follow and are involved in NCAD, sharing their stories with the hashtag #nationalconcussionawarenessday,” Brooke said.
Her ultimate goal is for people to better understand concussion symptoms and how long concussions can take to heal. Students like herself are often bullied by classmates and adults have difficulty taking time off of work. “I want people to be more sympathetic and to start a national conversation. I hope to make NCAD bigger each year,” she added.
Brooke explained that pageant contestants have to have a social initiative. She is passionate about concussions and she knew she had a pretty unique story since she was still experiencing symptoms three years after that kick to her head in gym class.
Pageants also have a talent competition but since she can no longer dance she took voice lessons so she could compete by singing. The hardest part of the competition is the interview, Brooke says. “[The judges] have a list of things about me, but I didn’t actually remember most of them. I had to make a photo book of things I had done to help me remember them.”
The summer after high school, in 2016, Brooke was crowned Miss Weirs Beach (New Hampshire). In 2017 she was named Miss Merrimack, where she won the interview section of the pageant, and she was Miss Winnipesaukee (New Hampshire) in 2018. In January 2020 she was crowned Miss Inman (South Carolina) and will be competing for Miss South Carolina in June.
Amy Zellmer is an award winning author, keynote speaker, and TBI survivor and advocate. She is Editor-in-chief of The Brain Health Magazine, and hosts the Faces of TBI podcast series, as well as TBI TV on YouTube.