Anita Riggs struggled with debilitating symptoms stemming from a concussion for five years, but it only took one week of treatment to dramatically improve her life.
Riggs—whose daughter, Mercedes, is a senior guard for the Blue Devils—slipped and hit her head on the ice in October 2010, and soon began experiencing chronic migraines and short-term memory loss, among other complications. The Riggs family visited several hospitals and specialists, but nothing seemed to work until Anita Riggs received a text message from a friend that wound up being life-altering.
The friend had seen a commercial on TV about a new revolutionary treatment called Cognitive FX to help treat concussion patients. Riggs recorded the news the next day and saw the commercial, and she was surprised to see that the co-founder of the clinic was Dr. Alina Fong, who she saw for help at a local hospital soon after her injury.
“Anita first came to me about five years ago, when she first got her head injury, when I was working for a hospital out there. We did our best with the hospital model that she could, but she just struggled so much. She went off to try to do some other types of therapies and then I actually broke off and started to develop this imaging technique,” Fong said. “She found her way back in, and when she saw that it was me again, she got excited because we did as much as we could with her.”
Fong developed her Cognitive FX therapy through 10 years of research and data collection. The treatment is centered around functional neurocognitive imaging (NCI) scans, which provide more details than a normal structural MRI. Once Fong puts a patient through a functional NCI, she customizes his or her treatment based on which areas of the brain need work.
The treatment itself is a week-long grueling boot camp—patients come to the clinic for eight hours each day and undergo a series of brain stimulation exercises, balance exercises, memory games and cardio targeted at the parts of their brain that need the most help. Patients are so mentally drained after the first day that they are not allowed to drive home, but once the week is over, they have another functional NCI scan that usually shows marked improvement.
Austin Collie, a former NFL player whose football career was cut short by three concussions, is one of the clinic’s success stories and now spreads awareness of its work alongside Dr. Fong.
“Whether you notice a drastic difference or not, the follow-up fNCI scan is kind of what tells you, ‘Look at the difference,’” Collie said last week during a visit with Fong to Durham. “The fact that we’re able to actually hold tangible evidence that we’re getting better—in the neurological world, [proof] really doesn’t exist unless it’s physical damage, but you can’t cognitively hold something up until [Cognitive FX] and say, ‘Hey, I’ve gotten better, here’s the proof.’”
Riggs wanted to try the revolutionary treatment, but the first hurdle to clear was funding. Her oldest daughter, Vanessa, set up a GoFundMe account in October to raise the $9,000 that the treatment costs, and the Duke program helped spread the word of the fundraising campaign until it reached its goal, with Mercedes Riggs and her teammates and coaches sharing the account on social media.
Riggs started her treatment Nov. 30 and immediately noticed a drastic change. After the end of the first day at the clinic in Provo, Utah, just a short drive from her house, a light bulb went off.
”Toward the end of the first evening, after going through all my different treatments that day, I sat down with the occupational therapist. He had me write notes, because he was giving me some recommendations on strategies to help me throughout the day,” Riggs said. “I looked down at my notes when I was done, and I just could see the notes were very organized and concise, which they hadn’t been for five years. For me, it felt like an awakening that happened in the brain. That’s the best word I can use.”
Thousands of miles away, Mercedes Riggs was finishing up her fall semester at Duke, but she immediately sensed that her mother was getting better.
“A couple weeks after the treatment, I finally got to go home—that was around Christmas break—so I saw it in person, but the first time I called her after her treatment, I could already tell,” Riggs said. “Just changes in her voice and the energy level that she had—right away, there were changes.”
Anita Riggs is showing signs of her energetic self that family members were used to before the injury, and Riggs and her husband, Bill, made their first trip of the season to Durham to watch Mercedes play against No. 10 Florida State and Wake Forest last week.
Recovery is still a long and tiresome process, and Anita Riggs has a routine of daily brain exercises to maintain the progress she experienced during her week at the Cognitive FX clinic. But after years of wondering if there was any hope, the Riggs family found the solution they were looking for.
“Just because you went through the treatment, you’re not done.... I’ve been living a certain way for five years. My body’s been used to doing certain things, and now we’re trying to change those habits,” Riggs said. “I do feel a lot better. I have more quality of life.”