Concussions: Living with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

Date: Sep 21, 2020

Being a star athlete is every kid’s dream, and for Nate Lewis that dream became a reality. Nate’s passion for football started when he was just 10 years old. He loved the game and was driven to make it to the top. A combination of talent and grit led Nate to be recruited by the University of Georgia during his senior year of high school and he was later drafted by the National Football League (NFL).

For six years, Nate played professionally for the San Diego Chargers and the Chicago Bears. He was living out his childhood dream — powerful, respected and successful in his career. Unfortunately, the dream of being a famous football player often leaves out bits of reality — like the beating a player’s body takes on the field. Nate got his first concussion as a young teen, and several more followed throughout his football career. He can’t remember exactly how many concussions he’s endured, but he estimates 20 or more.

Nate was a powerhouse on the field, playing through the pain and confusion of concussions with nothing more than a short break to ice his head and neck. But after playing in the NFL for six years, his coaches said that his body was beat up and that he just had too many injuries.

Lasting Effects from Multiple Concussions

After leaving his football career, Nate met his wife, Sherry. Seven years into their relationship, Sherry says that Nate changed — he became enraged, confused and argumentative. Sherry explains that there was a look in his eye that didn’t feel the same. “He wasn’t there anymore. He kind of locked down and wouldn’t let me in. The person that I fell in love with and the person that loved me wasn’t the same person.”

Looking back now, Nate acknowledges that he felt very angry. He was frustrated that he couldn’t remember things and he didn’t want his wife to think he was dumb. He and Sherry were on the brink of divorce, and Nate was contemplating taking his own life.

Tragedy Brings Enlightenment

Nate remembers the day he heard that his friend and former teammate, Junior Seau, died by suicide. As the stories came out, Nate began to recognize the narrative — Junior had been experiencing many of the same feelings and emotions as Nate was battling. An autopsy on his friend’s brain showed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a progressive brain disease found in people who have sustained repetitive brain trauma, such as concussions.

Finding Help and Hope

Now that Nate knew what was likely causing his rage, confusion and depression, he decided to look for help. He turned to Anthony Stringer, PhD, a neuropsychologist at the Emory Brain Health Center in Atlanta, GA.

Nate was given medicine to address his headaches, depression, anger and difficulty maintaining focus. Dr. Stringer also offered a specialized rehabilitation program, called ecologically-related neurorehabilitation, to help improve Nate’s reasoning and problem-solving abilities.

Dr. Stringer’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Method

Ecologically-related neurorehabilitation isn’t new; in fact, Dr. Stringer used it 20 years ago with patients who suffered brain injuries during car accidents. Dr. Stringer says that the nervous system has a great ability to heal itself and that rehab can help facilitate that recovery. His goal is to help the healthy parts of the brain ‘pick up the slack’ for the parts that are not functioning as they should.

Dr. Stringer aims to help patients learn how to make the best use of their preserved cognitive skills. He develops strategies that help patients like Nate to deal with reasoning, problem-solving and attention deficiencies — and research is showing some remarkable outcomes.

Nate Is Making a Comeback

As part of his rehabilitation, Nate practices and utilizes Dr. Stringer’s W.O.P.R. approach:

W – Writing down things he needs to remember
O – Organizing it
P – Picturing it in his mind
R – Rehearsing, or practicing, recalling the information

Nate takes a notebook along everywhere he goes so that he can jot down information. He uses this method to help him remember all sorts of things, including names and faces.

Things are looking up for Nate since he began treatment. His cognitive abilities are improving, and he and Sherry are doing better than ever. He sees Dr. Stringer and his therapists every four to six weeks for booster sessions. “It’s bringing my confidence back as a person,” Nate explains. “I’m not beating myself up as much and the different strategies they’re teaching me are amazing.”

About Your Fantastic Mind

Emory University and the Emory Brain Health Center have partnered with Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) on a television series, Your Fantastic Mind, which features compelling stories on brain-related health and wellness.

Your Fantastic Mind began airing season 2 in September 2020 on GPB’s statewide television network. The Emmy winning news magazine-style show highlights patient stories and reports on cutting-edge science and clinical advances in neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, sleep medicine and rehabilitation medicine.

For a complete listing of Season 2 episode air dates and times, visit

Season 1 of Your Fantastic Mind examined topics including sleep apnea, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, PTSD, Huntington’s disease, migraines and video gaming disorder, which has been designated a mental health disorder by the World Health Organization.

Jaye Watson is the show’s host, writer and executive producer. She is an Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning veteran Atlanta journalist and video producer for the Emory Brain Health Center.

Emory Brain Health Center

The Emory Brain Health Center uniquely integrates neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, rehabilitation medicine and sleep medicine to offer world-class, patient-centered care, treatment and discovery for brain and spinal cord conditions. Bringing these multiple specialties together allows more than 400 researchers and clinicians to work in partnership to predict, prevent, treat and cure devastating diseases and disorders of the brain more rapidly. These collaborations are demonstrated in numerous centers and programs across the Brain Health Center, including the Epilepsy Center, Pituitary Center, Stroke Center, Treatment-Resistant Depression Program and Veterans Program.

Emory’s multidisciplinary approach is transforming the world’s understanding of the vast frontiers of the brain, harnessing imagination and discovery to address 21st century challenges.

Learn more about comprehensive, diagnostic and innovative treatment options at the Emory Brain Health Center.

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