Pictured here is Dutch cyclist Amy Pieters. In December 2021, the 31-year-old professional athlete crashed during practice at a national team training camp in Spain. The accident resulted in severe head injuries that required brain surgery, followed by a medically induced coma that lasted four months. The brain injury was serious enough to impair her abilities to walk and talk. Her recovery has been slow. After waking from the coma last April, she underwent six months of physical therapy before regaining her ability to walk.
Ms. Pieters was in the news last month because her brain injury recently triggered epileptic seizures. Her bicycling community established the Amy Pieters Foundation, which raised enough money to purchase a modified bicycle and a system that can detect seizures. Ms. Pieters’ outdoor adapted rides are the latest step of her healing journey.
Demarius Thomas is another stellar professional athlete whose life was tragically impacted by a traumatic brain injury, or TBI. Mr. Thomas was the Denver Broncos’ quarterback for over ten years. He began having seizures at age 31, after sustaining a serious head injury during a 2019 car crash. About two years later, during the same month Ms. Pieters crashed at bicycle training camp, Mr. Thomas died of Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy, a.k.a. SUDEP. The public wasn’t aware of Mr. Thomas’s epilepsy until after his death. At the time, media interviewed his cousin, who speculated his death was related to a seizure, which a coroner’s report confirmed a year and a half later. Media noted the disproportionate mortality rate of Black people with epilepsy. Medical experts speculated this is due to Black Americans’ lack of access to good healthcare, and the stigmas attached to epilepsy.
Neither Mr. Thomas nor Ms. Pieters had a history of epilepsy or seizures, but there is a clear connection between TBI and epilepsy. Approximately 10% of people who require hospitalization after a TBI experience post-traumatic epilepsy within three years of their accident. Studies also show that post-traumatic epilepsy accounts for 20% of symptomatic and 3%–6% of all new-onset epilepsy. While this month’s blog is about professional athletes, you don’t have to be one to get into a serious accident. These heartbreaking stories could scare a person away from highways and bicycles forever, but of course, that’s extreme. With my own history of seizures, although these stories stir up some anxiety about highway driving and city street biking, I regularly do these things with a seat belt and helmet, respectively. I even ice skate occasionally. Here I am with my daughter, partaking in my riskiest guilty pleasure on Boston Common last month.
Reading about Ms. Pieters’ unfortunate circumstances, I’m comforted that the Dutch bicycle community publicly announced her seizures and established a fundraiser to address her health needs. The Amy Pieters Foundation posts updates about her recovery and her teammates’ outreach and fundraising efforts. Last summer, team members wore a special version of their jersey at the Tour de France with Ms. Pieters’ name on it. The details leave me hopeful she’s getting the support and care she needs, and more likely to have a good outcome.
Comparing Mr. Thomas and Ms. Pieters’ stories dismays me. When Mr. Thomas died, his NFL colleagues sang his accolades, praising his team spirit, ability to personally connect, and participation in charity events. Last month the Denver Broncos’ website posted a series of interviews with Broncos players discussing their personal and professional connections to Demaryius Thomas. Like Ms. Peters, Mr. Thomas had a significant posse of admirers comprised of colleagues and fans. Had he gone public about his epilepsy challenges, I suspect he would have received support from them, which could have led to better healthcare. I’m saddened by this what if. Stigmas about epilepsy probably played a role in Mr. Thomas’s choice to keep it secret.
I’ve joined Ms. Pieters’ fans, following her on Twitter as I wish for her full recovery. I hope these stories’ comparison encourages others who experience epileptic seizures to be open about their health condition and seek the support they need from providers, family, and friends.
 Centers for Disease Control