by Sean Jensen
Aimee Custer, PsyD, could see, hear and feel the weight of Tyler Brower’s fears and frustrations when he initially visited her at TRIA 18 months ago.
A prep hockey player with pro potential, Brower suffered numerous concussions that not only threatened his career but, in his mind, his life. Armed with 300 pages of documents that chronicled his head-injury history, Brower sought something Dr. Custer could relate to on a personal and professional level.
“There was desperation for this not to be the end of his career,” Dr. Custer recalls. “I was the first doctor to tell him there was hope.”
Dr. Custer, a clinical sports neuropsychologist at TRIA, could relate to Brower and many of her patients.
She searched for hope when she, a three-sport prep athlete, was befallen by a sudden and serious illness that left her wheelchair-bound for six months and reliant on a cane for three more years.
She searched for hope when, in the midst of her graduate studies, her mom suffered a traumatic brain injury. Many nights, while sleeping in a hospital rehab unit, Dr. Custer’s mom would awaken her by asking, “Where am I?” and, “Who are you?”
“I’ve always been fascinated with psychology and recognized the importance of mental health. This career path was driven by own hardships and struggles,” Dr. Custer says. “Many of the challenges I faced as a young person gave me the opportunity to build strength and resilience.”
She’s earned the degrees, including a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a fellowship to obtain specialization in Clinical Sports Neuropsychology. She’s earned the credentials, including experience as a Clinical Sports Neuropsychologist with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. She now serves as the Clinical Director of TRIA’s Sport Concussion Program, working with athletes who have suffered concussions, from pee wee sports to professional levels, and weekend warriors. She’s also currently the Team Neuropsychologist for the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps.
But Dr. Custer prides herself — and distinguishes herself amongst her patients — by being committed to three core values.
Brower describes the depths of his concussion struggles as, “feeding this dark hole in my heart.” Dr. Custer has battled that darkness herself, which is why she isn’t intimidated and perhaps even inspired by the, “challenging cases.”
She remembers the fear and frustration of going through treatment and rehab and hearing discouragements from her doctors.
“So many doctors told me I would never walk or run again,” she recalls. “I had been training for my second triathlon when I got sick. It was life-changing.”
In weakness, Dr. Custer’s internal fortitude was fostered, and the resilience and persistence she developed now aids her patients because of her willingness to explore every available option.
“I am confident that we can make any situation better. I’m not always 100% successful, by any means,” she says. “I don’t want to instill false hope. But at the same time, hope can often be the main missing piece in these cases. One of the scariest places to be is hopeless.”
Dr. Custer has had many patients like Brower, who are initially skeptical of her optimism.
“I told one patient, years after injury, that we still had options we could try, and he said, ‘I’m not ready to say I have hope because I don’t want to be disappointed.’ But I could see he was willing to bet on my hope until he was ready to believe and see change.”
Dr. Custer views each patient’s challenge as its own unique puzzle. Take an Olympic hockey player from another country who came to her with recurring symptoms from concussions. But Dr. Custer believed she needed to dig deeper, a particular challenge since everything needed to be communicated through a translator. Dr. Custer investigated cultural factors, the patient’s diet, coaching style changes and even sleep schedule as influences on her symptoms and recovery.
“When it comes to assessing concussion, there’s no ‘gold standard’ tool,” Dr. Custer says. “There’s an art to pulling all the data and test results together with who the patient is, who they were before and how this injury is impacting them specifically in all areas of life.”
She is familiar with all the treatment methods and tailors a unique plan for each of her patients.
Dr. Custer, for instance, wasn’t the least bit intimidated when Brower arrived with 300 pages of his own concussion-related documents.
“She said, ‘I’m going to organize this for you, and we’re going to create a plan,’ ” Brower says.
That wasn’t all.
“She also wanted me to write down my dreams,” Brower says.
That was to play professional hockey, something previous doctors told Brower wasn’t possible.
Dr. Custer, however, developed a plan that had Brower steadily improving in necessary testing and gaining confidence in his treatment.
“As soon as she said pro hockey was possible, I was like, ‘I’m in! I will do whatever you want me to,’ ” Brower recalls.
Brower fulfilled that dream last season, when he played 15 games for a professional hockey team in Germany. He’s planning to head back there this winter, once his surgically-repaired shoulder regains full strength.
He considers making that initial visit with Dr. Custer the “most incredible and impactful decision” of his life.
Dr. Custer remembers her first semester of graduate school, when friends were moving to Uptown in Minneapolis and meeting up at trendy bars and restaurants.
But her illness wreaked havoc on her life, and her number of friends started to dwindle. She wasn’t mobile, she didn’t have concrete answers about her medical condition, and her friends didn’t see the hope in her road to recovery.
“For a year and a half,” she says, “it was tough.”
She also remembers the hours she pored over articles on Google about her own condition.
“With my personal experience, I feel I can relate to a lot of patients,” Dr. Custer says. “Specifically with this injury (concussions), communication is huge because understanding the injury and how it affects that individual can go a long way in the treatment itself.”
She feels compelled to provide accurate and relevant information since there’s a steady stream of articles that emerge related to concussions.
“There’s a lot of information out there,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean it’s all good information.”
Dr. Custer likens herself to a point guard in basketball, facilitating and leading her patient and her patient’s “team.” She communicates with all of the players in the patients’ recovery, from their athletic trainers, physical therapists, physicians, coaching staff, parents, spouses and other key individuals.
She also insists that each patient’s “story” is different. Ultimately, though, she’s fueled by a single word.
“Hope,” she says. “That’s what my day boils down to. I want to instill hope. To let them know that we can figure this out.”
Dr. Custer, though, insists she does not thrive alone.
“It’s a privilege to work side-by-side with the TRIA Sport Concussion Program care team,” she says. “They all work so hard to foster this same hope for all our patients.”
Although she remembers the fear of failure, she persevered during her recovery, and she will never forgot those in her support circle who provided hope.
In 2010, Dr. Custer punctuated regaining her full health by competing in her second triathlon.
“It was an indoor sprint triathlon, but completing it was one of the best days of my life!” Dr. Custer says. “Hope truly came to light for me that day.”
To learn more about TRIA’s Sport Concussion Program or to schedule an appointment, call 952-977-0467.