Grad's struggle with concussions spurs medical career
The Bloomfield High School valedictorian coped throughout his high school career with symptoms from his five concussions, and now he plans to attend medical school to prevent others from having the same experience
BLOOMFIELD — After suffering five traumatic brain injuries and studying concussions throughout his high school career, Lucas Maestas is now ready to channel all of that knowledge into a medical career.
The Bloomfield High School valedictorian was awarded one of 28 spots in a prestigious University of New Mexico program that covers the entire cost of a student's undergraduate work and reserves them a spot in the university's School of Medicine.
Maestas, who hopes to study neurology at UNM, already has experience conducting medical research.
Initially as part of a class project, he chronicled his struggle to recover from his brain injuries on livingwithaconcussion.com. During his four years in high school, Maestas continually updated the site, detailing his symptoms and sharing tips for recovery.
He said the site "served as an outlet to express what I was going through."
Four concussions in about a year
The Bloomfield teenager's first three concussions happened in a span of about four months, according to his mother, Phyllis Maestas.
The first was in July 2011, when he landed on his head in the shallow end of his family's backyard pool while horsing around with friends.
He recalled he felt sick right after that. It took a trip to the emergency room and time — about two weeks — for him to return to feeling normal.
A month later during a Mesa Alta Junior High School football game, Maestas, the team's quarterback, was sacked a couple of times. A trip to the doctor the next day confirmed he had suffered his second concussion.
"If I had known what I know now, I would have stopped playing any contact sports after my concussion," he said. "I was still kind of unaware of how serious things were."
Then in November 2011, he was hit in the back of the head with a basketball during a physical education class, leading to concussion No. 3.
At that point, Maestas and his parents started visiting neurologists around Farmington, trying to treat his symptoms. Again, it took time for those symptoms — headaches, fatigue and trouble with his vision — to subside. This time, it took the spring semester of eighth grade and most of the summer to recover.
And then the fourth concussion happened. This time it wasn't a hard hit or fall that caused it. Instead, Maestas said, an inner tubing outing in August 2012 further jostled his brain and brought on the fourth concussion.
"This is the concussion that caused me all of my problems I had for my high school career," he said.
Struggling with symptoms
The pain from those four concussions forced Maestas to miss the first three weeks of his freshman year at Bloomfield High. When he finally returned to school, he said any physical exertion fatigued him.
So he got into the habit of attending his classes and heading straight home, sleeping for three or four hours before waking up to do his homework and then falling back asleep. He kept up this schedule for about two and a half years.
"There was definitely periods of time where I thought I was never going to be able to completely recover," he said.
He began to fall behind in his schoolwork and started to fail classes as his symptoms persisted.
"There was a point that we didn’t know what was going to happen to him," said his father, Eric Maestas. "Nothing worse than coming home and seeing your kid in bed and not knowing when it was going to get better."
Despite the pain, Maestas detailed his symptoms on his website, a project that PE teacher Frank Dehoyos assigned students when Maestas was a freshman and was recovering from his fourth concussion.
"He just took the bull by the horns and got after it,” said Dehoyos of Maestas' work ethic on the project.
Even after the assignment was completed, Maestas continued to update the site. His work eventually caught the eye of a coach who invited him to speak at the New Mexico High School Coaches Association clinic in July 2014.
"I think they were able to see how serious this injury could be," he said.
Working on the site also helped Maestas and his parents explain what was happening to their friends.
"I had friends of mine that would ask 'Why don’t you get another opinion? I think he’s OK,'" Eric Maestas said. "They don’t understand what we are seeing at home."
While conducting research for his website, Lucas learned about the Cerebrum Health Center in Irving, Texas. He made his first trip to the medical facility for brain health treatment in December 2014.
There, doctors conducted extensive tests on his brain and other areas. The doctors discovered Maestas had hypothyroidism, a deficiency of thyroid hormones in the body. He was prescribed a medication to address the condition.
Maestas said none of his previous doctors had looked at the possibility that his prolonged symptoms were caused by the metabolic condition.
Doctors in Texas also taught Maestas about exercises to stabilize his vision and stop his eyes from moving uncontrollably.
"Each day, I was waking up, I was feeling 10 times better than the day before," he said.
A car crash in November re-aggravated his injuries, causing a fifth concussion. About two weeks later, Maestas visited the Health Center to continue treatment and has made several trips since the crash as part of his recovery. He has been working hard to manage his symptons during his senior year.
On Friday, he graduated with honors and a 4.6579 GPA.
But the struggle to initially diagnosis his injuries has spurred him to study neurology. Maestas said he hopes to return to the area to make sure patients with traumatic brain injuries receive proper care.
The program at UNM that he will enter was designed to address a physician shortage in rural and under-served areas.
"I personally felt like I was affected by the physician shortage in the state," he said. "It was really nice that the program aligned with my goals to come back and serve New Mexico so others didn't have go through similar experiences like I did."
Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.
Editors Note: This story was revised on July 26 to correct an error in the number of concussions Lucas Maestas suffered. The number is five, instead of four. Also added were details of his condition after the fifth concussion.
Symptoms associated with concussions include:
- Headache or “pressure” in head
- Nausea or vomiting
- Balance problems or dizziness
- Double or blurry vision
- Bothered by light or noise
- Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy or groggy
- Confusion. Concentration or memory problems
- Just not "feeling right" or "feeling down"