Slammed in the face by a futon, Welcome Week Coordinator Sydney Riggs is left with no option but to return home during her final year of college.
By Abbi Bates
Sydney Riggs stood outside of Arden Village in mid-October with tears streaming down her face and her Honda CR-V heaped with a dorm-full of belongings, including Chacos, her Bible and Texas A&M t-shirts.
“I never thought I would move out of my dorm the fall of my senior year,” Riggs said.
The futon that struck Riggs in the head Aug. 25, 2021, did not leave her much of a choice.
The end of the first day of move-ins was coming to a close. There were still a handful of cars roaming in for the evening to move in. All but a few had gone in for dinner. Welcome Week staff members Josh Sampson and Micah Smith struggled to unload a futon from a large SUV. They called over Riggs to help.
The jostled futon was shoved and slammed against the side of her face and shoulder.
“Ow ow ow,” Riggs said while she gripped her head.
Smith told her to “go sit down, immediately.”
After bringing the futon into the dorm, Smith, a health education major, marched back to perform a concussion test – examining for differences in pupil sizes, slurred speech, weakness and decreased coordination.
“I think you have a concussion,” Smith said.
As one of three Welcome Week Coordinators, Riggs felt she had no choice but to continue through the next four days of Welcome Week despite feeling “different.” Little did she know this would be a five-month recovery that would result in taking the rest of the academic year off.
The day following her concussion, she presented on stage in Benson Great Hall to all incoming freshmen and their parents. She couldn’t quite remember what she had talked to them about.
“I was probably slurring my words,” Riggs said.
She did not slow down for the four remaining days of Welcome Week, 7 a.m. to midnight. She planned the lakeside picnic, commissioning service, the Show, the Bethel Student Government party and the Day of Service. She took frequent breaks in her supervisor’s office to lie down in a dark room. Bright lights and blaring sun caused discomfort and she was unable to lift her arm. Riggs knew something was wrong with her health.
“I just feel like there should have been so many red flags,” she said.
She continued with Welcome Week tasks as she prepared to start her senior year of classes in her elementary K-6 major.
“She’s normally the most bubbly and friendly person,” said boyfriend, now husband, Mark Riggs, “but when she was concussed all she wanted to do and was able to do was pretty much lie in bed most of the day. It was hard to see how much it took out of her and how slow the recovery process was.”
Welcome Week finished and Monday morning marked the beginning of the fall semester. Riggs visited Bethel’s on-campus nurse practitioner, Elizabeth Ewest, who told her she most likely had a concussion and to take breaks from looking at her computer.
Days went by and her symptoms did not improve. Headaches proceeded, bright light still brought irritation and dizziness followed her everywhere she walked. Associate Dean for Student Care Alicia Ochs met with Riggs during the first week of the semester. Riggs was given a month of full accommodations considering the circumstances.
Student Life Staff member and Associate Dean for Campus Engagement Nate Gustafson declined to comment on the incident as he wasn’t hired until January 2022.
After more visits, Ewest prescribed Riggs an antidepressant intended to help with concussion symptoms and told her to take over-the-counter magnesium. At the beginning of October, she was referred to a neurologist because her symptoms were not improving.
Her stay at Bethel lasted only a month after the incident. She was encouraged by others and ultimately made the decision herself to move out and go home to Hartford, South Dakota. Her 18-credit semester came to a close after her adviser, Education Licensing and Advising Specialist Nadine Johnson, encouraged her to do so. Ochs also told her she needed to go home to care for her health.
“I was just in a hole … I was not going to be able to get out of it,” Riggs said.
Her fiancé packed up most of her dorm for her.
“That’s not how I wanted my senior year to go,” Riggs said.
Upon moving home, she saw her primary care provider, who told her she had a severe concussion. They sent her in for an MRI and she started physical therapy for her shoulder.
The MRI results displayed inflammation in the brain. Her doctor told her that she should do nothing except go to physical therapy and begin speech therapy.
The months following brought back feelings similar to those of COVID-19 quarantine, isolated and alone in a room.
“I was all by myself and I had to just, like, stay there and sleep. I felt like I was watching everyone from the sidelines,” Riggs said.
In January, she could watch movies and listen to podcasts and music again. She continued to go to speech therapy, where she had to relearn how to read out loud again, do basic math facts, elementary logic puzzles and complete mock college homework assignments.
During her five months of recovery, Riggs was most grateful for the people who called and texted her to check in – especially her education professors. It was clear they were eager to have her back.
When she originally moved home, she thought she would return back to Bethel in January, but her return was postponed by her care providers as the inflammation surrounding her brain was not receding.
In March she began to feel as though life was going back to normal. Her MRI in March said the same: the inflammation receded. She filed for workers’ compensation from being a Welcome Week coordinator and began the process of registering for the upcoming fall semester.
She worked with Johnson to get registration holds removed. The billing office attempted to charge her for the semester she did not complete. Johnson advocated for her. Vice President of Student Experience Miranda Powers ended up reaching out to Riggs with an apology, taking accountability and releasing the hold.
Riggs moved back to the Twin Cities spring of 2022, where she lived with a couple of other Bethel friends while nannying.
“I just needed the tiniest bit of normalcy in my life,” Riggs said.
They would go on roommate walks after dark around their neighborhood off of County Road E, about three minutes from Bethel’s campus. They would cook sheet pan dinners and popcorn in the kitchen.
“When Katherine, Syd, Taylor and I were all together we’d get really giggly,” one of three roommates, Talia Egge said.
Riggs was able to regain the roommate experience she dearly missed.
Sydney Riggs, then Sydney Holloway, and Mark Riggs were married July 16, 2022. They moved in together and live in Maple Grove. Riggs student taught this spring at Pinewood Elementary in the Mounds View School District.
“As a teacher myself, it’s fun to hear her stories and share advice as she student teaches,” her mother, Pam Holloway said. Riggs is set to graduate this spring.
Post-concussion symptoms are a daily battle. She still experiences dizziness, overstimulation, loss of focus and longevity of task completion.
She hopes to get a full-time teaching position. However, Riggs plans to take a break for a while and regroup before going into a full-time job. “It’s a whole different type of stress to go from zero to 100,” she said.
“I’ll continue to support her by encouraging [her] to take the rest that she deserves. I want her to be able to truly decompress this summer and enjoy the warm weather that she loves so much,” Mark Riggs said.
From her concussion, Riggs learned to advocate for herself, wait on God’s timing and be grateful for the small things in life.
“I’m so stinking proud of her. She has overcome so much to plan a beautiful wedding and complete her senior year … I’ve always been proud of Sydney,” Pam Holloway said. “She’s always trusted the Lord in all areas of her life and He’s blessed her with great leadership skills, a huge loving heart and wisdom some people only wish for.”
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