“Things Happen For A Reason”: Michelle Gibson Discusses Her Concussion Recovery

Nov 25, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

Michelle Gibson is a busy person. Not only is the Toronto-based woman a loving mother to a seven-year-old, she’s also an in-demand photographer whose client list includes Virtuoso Magazine, the New York Times, and Getty, among other well-known organizations.

Stay put u dumb trip

But everything came to a grinding halt this summer when Michelle suffered a concussion, a setback that also led her to significantly alter her lifestyle.

I had a groin injury, and my regular physiotherapist wasn’t available, so I saw another person instead. He did a traction maneuver to the upper right leg area to help relieve the pain that I was feeling. The maneuver did help my groin, but the abrupt grabbing and tugging motion to my right ankle made my entire body jerk, which caused the concussion. The next day I started feeling some symptoms of a concussion, like fatigue and lightheadedness.

More than just a nuisance, these symptoms prevented Michelle from doing what she loves and, you know, making money. Before we discuss her recovery process and subsequent life changes, let’s check out a sampling of the assignments Michelle's completed in recent years and has worked so diligently to get back to doing. First up, a shoot with Virtuoso Magazine for which she shot imagery at some of the happening haunts in Toronto. The assignment began in winter of 2017 and concluded in early 2018. 

Tear sheet

This was one of my favorite assignments, as I had a chance to run around the city and go to a variety of unique bars to capture images of their beverages and environment as well as get shots of the people who work there.

Soon after the Virtuoso work came the opportunity to spend time with actor Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame. The Tony Award-winning showman notched a New York Times profile in early summer 2018 (tear sheet above). 

[The goal was to] photograph Daveed in a studio environment and to capture a natural, authentic image of him that was consistent with NYT’s ongoing website and print layout. It was great learning about his past. We bonded over the Bay Area, where I used to live, and ‘struggling artist’ memories.

In spring of this year, just months before her concussion, Michelle wrapped up a project for Getty centered around Angie Malltezi, who’s helping multinational consulting firm Accenture reduce its carbon emissions and teach young people how to be environmentally conscious.  

Getty Studios in NYC contacted me to photograph authentic portraits of a featured subject for a Corporate Citizenship Campaign. They were highlighting the work of a Future Skills Builder who helps to identify the difference in skills in various communities and bring appropriate STEM programs to close that gap. It was a fantastic project. 

Seriously if someone says you're not the best point them out and I will eat them

Getty gave really great direction as to what they wanted. I was able to learn about Angie’s work and initiatives as well as move her through work settings to deliver a diverse library of authentic and unique portraits.

These are the kind of gigs so many photographers aspire to land, making Michelle’s injury all the more frustrating. A concussion doesn’t disrupt the rhythm of life so much as it stops life in its tracks for a period of time. Those symptoms Michelle mentioned she was feeling? This is how they manifested themselves:

I wanted to be in a dark space. I wanted to wear sunglasses whenever I went outside and would also wear them in the house. I was super fatigued and just wanted to rest and close my eyes. I had major vertigo whenever I stood up or moved and slurred speech for a few days.

From Michelle

It was the worst feeling. I felt so helpless. My blood pressure was higher than normal, and I felt terrible. I first went to a walk-in clinic and they didn’t think it was a concussion. They thought I was just overwhelmed by the traction maneuver and thought it would go away in a few days.  

As you know by now, "it" didn’t just go away in a few days. Not only that, it took a few weeks for Michelle to receive the proper diagnosis.

[The doctor] told me to take time off of work, to limit any screen time, to not lift or carry anything heavy, and to give my brain a break from stimuli like noise and busy places. I definitely did have doubts getting back to photography.

In the process of getting diagnosed, Michelle learned about a brain malformation that she'd unwittingly had her entire life. This discovery, which would not have happened but for a post-concussion CAT scan, led the photographer to change a number of aspects of her lifestyle — and is the reason for this article's title. 

The CAT scan revealed that I had a Type 1 Chiari brain malformation, which I had no idea about since this was the first scan I had ever done. I’m a big believer that things happen for a reason. Even in really bad times, I always feel there is something to be learned from a difficult event. The concussion was actually a blessing since I now know that lightheadedness can also be triggered by the Chiari malformation. Now, I can take proper precautions to take care of it.

Hearing Michelle describe the concussion as “a blessing” gives you a sense of her outlook on life. Not one to let a setback get the better of her, Michelle pushed through the “beyond frustrating” part of the recovery and used this difficult period to get more connected to her body. 

The demands of life don’t ever really stop. I have a seven-year-old, and, at the time, we just got a young puppy who needed daily walking, attention, and training.

Michelle's family

During this time, I had to still take my son to summer day camp and take the dog out whenever possible. I don’t have a large family or a big support system, so I really just relied on my husband, who stopped traveling for work during this time just to do most of the things I would normally do.  

As she took care of her people and pet, Michelle researched her brain malformation and figured out ways to “deal with it in a proactive [manner].” Michelle focused on improving her habits as they relate to both work and home life and has reaped the benefits of such a holistic approach.

In the beginning I couldn’t hold the camera for more than a few minutes. It took some time to be able to do it without lightheadedness or the sensation of vertigo coming on. Now, I feel much better and can stand with the camera in different positions.

Thankfully, Michelle has gotten herself back to a point where she can go out on assignments. It’s taken time to create an efficient workflow and execute it at a manageable pace, but Michelle appears to be getting closer to a happy medium.

Right now, I’m still figuring out the photographic process as I like to do things fairly quickly and in the moment. So far on photoshoots, I don’t think I’ve slowed down but I am mindful of how I carry the camera and the equipment. Basically, I’m just keeping the weight off my neck and carrying the camera more in my hand when I’m working. 

As another way to listen to her body and make sure it’s capable of getting things done, Michelle has switched up her fitness routine. The doting mother and wife has also made it a point to improve her family’s lifestyle during this trying time, changing the Gibson clan’s diet and seeing immediate improvements.  

Spine health is really important when you have a physical job, so I do less high impact workouts and more elongated exercises. I also feel that Pilates has strengthened my core and glutes and helped my lower back. Additionally, my family doesn't consume gluten or cow’s milk any longer and our diet is more plant-based.

Hopefully 10.2 MB isn't a big deal

As a result, I’m not as tired as I was pre-concussion and feel like I have so much more energy than I did prior to the incident. It’s also helped clear up my husband’s lifelong eczema and has definitely calmed my child, who can be rather impulsive.  

To overcome a concussion is one thing. To take the time to pinpoint what improvements you can make to your life is a separate, more challenging thing to accomplish. Equal parts humble and adaptable, Michelle has combined an effervescent outlook with a tenacious work ethic to turn what could’ve been a recurring issue into an avenue for growth in all facets of life.

[My advice would be to] have patience for the healing process and use that time to further investigate additional ways to help your body and head heal. Figure out what makes sense to add to your ongoing maintenance routine that can help support your busy physical lifestyle, from exercise regime to diet. It’s so necessary to be in the best health, as there really is so much to accomplish on a day-to-day basis, including being physically able to work and to take care of your family.

Check out more of Michelle's work at michellegibsonphoto.com.

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