Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Blood, sweat and tears go into every X-Ring, but especially so with Rachel Allan

December 1st, 2017
Rachel Allan

As StFX Day approaches, StFX student Rachel Allan says she’ll feel overwhelmed, accomplished and a little surreal when she moves the silver ring she wears on her X-Ring finger that reads, “Be True to Your Dreams,” to another finger and slides on that distinctive band of gold with a raised black X. Here, we share Rachel’s story on what makes this day so special to her. 

Not so long ago, Rachel Allan, an honours economics and business student, didn’t believe she’d ever wear an X-Ring. At age 18, just months before arriving at StFX as a freshman student, she suffered a devastating brain trauma when she took a hard knee to the temple that knocked her out during a high school provincial rugby game. It wasn’t her first concussion.

She spent that June, her last month at St. Peter’s High School in Ottawa, on brain rest and the summer lying low. Doctors advised her not to come to StFX that September. She did.

“My whole life, I’ve been going to X,” she says, explaining her determination.  

“I was very stubborn, being a teenager.”

Her friends were coming, and StFX had been her dream since she was a child.

In Grade 2 when asked to draw four things on a flag that represented her family and future goals, she drew an X-Ring.

Not only did her family’s Thanksgiving dinner table regularly fill with generations of X-Ring wearers, every summer, when the family would stop at the traffic lights outside Antigonish on the drive from Ottawa to their bungalow in Big Pond, Cape Breton, her mother would say, ‘That’s your school. You’re going there someday.’

“My aunts would always tell me you need to get one of these (the X-Ring) just for the experiences you get there over four years, the accomplishment and hard work,” she says.

She followed her dream.

But it didn’t take long to realize things weren’t right. She remembers a walk across campus tiring her out, sleeping for four days straight with her roommate checking in that she was okay.

“I knew I was getting in too deep. I knew I was coming here forever, my friends were coming here. I tried, but no.”

“I had second impact syndrome,” she says.

“I couldn’t stay here. I was pretty brain dead. It was getting worse because I was in school.”

Things came to a head on October 15. Three-quarters of the way through a midterm she started blacking out. She saw a campus doctor who withdrew her.

She remembers Schwartz School of Business staff and faculty being very supportive, telling her to come back when she can.

More than lost dreams, she faced a daunting road ahead.

For months, she slept in a dark room with no TV, no computer and no phone.

She couldn’t put a sentence together, had no balance in her feet, everything in her head was wonky, she says.

“I couldn’t communicate my thoughts and I was left emotionless,” she says in an open and candid conversation.

“It was a very long process to get me to have a conversation with people.” She says she couldn’t form coherent sentences. She’d repeat herself.

“My brain swelled so bad after the second impact.”

Ms. Allan says she spent two years out of it, not engaged, with no control over her emotions. She started physio at the very bottom, she says.

Her doctors told her parents she’d likely have a permanent handicap and may not be able to do the things she did before. In hindsight, she says it was probably best she didn’t understand this diagnosis. She never gave up hope.  

Working with her neurologist and physiotherapist, little by little, she started to make strides.

She has holes in her brain and will always live with the damage, she says. However, her brain restored itself in the parts that were healthy.

“The healthy part has done it all on its own without any explanation,” she says.  

She works to prevent migraines and wears a heart monitor when she exercises so that she doesn’t exert herself too much.

“I’ve learned how to cope,” she says.

“I have triggers and I know my triggers. If I avoid my triggers, I do fine. Headaches will put me to bed.

“Since I’ve gone back to myself, my brain works in a different way,” she says. “I learn in a different way. Before, my learning was more oral, now it’s photographic and writing. That was a big adjustment,” she says.

Through it all she was determined to come back to school.

While her parents worried tremendously about her, they never put that stress on her or showed her their fear, she says. “They were very positive, and did everything they can to help me,” she says.

As a result, she says it was constantly in her mind that there wasn’t any reason she couldn’t do it, that she wouldn’t be able to go back to school.

Being positive and determined (she says her first words included “me do”) and being young and healthy all helped, she says.

The year after leaving Antigonish she took two economics courses at Ottawa University to see if she could apply herself and eventually return to StFX.

She started working at her old job, and she started travelling.

Ms. Allan says because of her injury she can never play sports again and she felt the loss keenly. Travelling became her new hobby. She backpacked through southeast Asia, China, Malaysia and Japan.

When she started working and travelling, she began to realize there was more to life than the game of rugby, and that she should be grateful and happy.

In fact, she says the injury has given her a whole new perspective.

“I’m so appreciative, and so curious. I so just want to live and appreciate relationships and meeting new people. I appreciate being able to connect with people, being able to sit down and talk to people and learn about their outlook. I like to learn about new cultures and things that benefit your soul and body.”

In 2015, she returned to StFX.  

Coming back the second time, she says she knew StFX was a place where she could get help. She knew how helpful people were from the health and counselling centre to her professors.

“But it was terrifying. I can’t drop out and fail again.”

She took extra courses, made the dean’s list, and picked up joint honours. Recently, she received the Tanenbaum Canada Israel Student Exchange Scholarship and spent last semester studying in Israel.  

“I thoroughly enjoy school now when before it was literally killing me.”

As graduation approaches, she’s considering a master’s of economics or an MBA. “I never thought a master’s would be in the cards.”

The flag Rachel Allan drew in Grade 2, featuring the X-Ring

When she finally slips on her X-Ring on December 3, the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, it will be surreal, she says.

She will move the silver ring she wears on her X-Ring finger that reads, “Be True to Your Dreams,” to another finger and slide on that distinctive band of gold with a raised black X.

Two words inscribe her X-Ring: “Seven years.”

“I wanted an X-Ring since I was seven,” she says.

“I don’t think it will feel real. When I left school, I felt I was never coming back. I was so depressed. My dreams were crushed. I fought to the very end to stay here.”

“This wasn’t in the view. I honestly didn’t think I was capable of it. I thought it was way out of my league.”

With family and friends cheering her on, she’ll be thinking about how much she has done to get back here and get her X-Ring.

“I’ll probably cry.

“I feel very accomplished, the amount of blood, sweat and tears I did to make this happen. I will definitely feel overwhelmed.

“I definitely want my children to get an X-Ring.”

 

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