Natalia Rybczynski has stood on top of the world and the bottom of it, in the high Canadian Arctic and Antarctica.
Today she picks up the pieces from those paleobiology visits — fascinating fossils of prehistoric camels, bears, sloths — that also represent pieces of her own recent past, when she was able to venture far afield, toting a massive pack.
Rybczynski, 46, named one of Canada’s top explorers by Canadian Geographic magazine in 2015, hasn’t been to one of the polar extremes, home of some of her most notable findings, since 2011. She hopes to have recovered enough from ongoing post-concussion syndrome symptoms to return to the field in 2019.
Incredibly, her last polar trip — to Antarctica with some of her Carleton University students — came just five weeks after she received a debilitating concussion in a cross-country ski collision in Gatineau Park, Jan. 10, 2011. A skier going downhill at high speed went out of control and slammed into her.
A research scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature and a Carleton professor with a PhD from Duke University in North Carolina, Rybczynski has made historic discoveries. Her finding of a carnivorous arctic mammal, a proto-seal, represented a “missing link” between land-dwelling mammals and modern-day ocean seals. Celebrated in scientific journals, she also confirmed that camels lived in the High Arctic millions of years ago during a warm cycle of the earth’s existence.
The Antarctic trip, though, she could have not have foreseen.
Without proper guidance on how to deal with concussion symptoms, despite two hospital visits and three others to walk-in clinics, Rybczynski was out on a rollicking boat in the notorious Drake Passage, home to some of the largest waves in the world, while scientists got thrown around the ship like so much loose cargo.
Everyone was nauseated, sea-sick, green of complexion. How was she to know hers was different, an enduring nausea that would continue off and on for years? She wonders now how much that lack of understanding of concussion trauma set back her long-term recovery.
“Someone with a brain injury should not go on a roller-coaster,” Rybczynski says.
Her memory of that trip: “one big blur of sick.”
She wanted to see humpback whales and did, apparently, but can’t recall it.
Although she remains limited in how much she can read, write or even drive a car, Rybczynski has applied some of her scientific zeal toward understanding brain injury and sharing it.
Along with others in the Concussion Injury Group at the University of Ottawa Brain Institute, Rybczynski, Jane Clark, Meg Milne, Frances Casey and many more helped provide patient input for the development of provincial concussion recovery guidelines.
So recent is the influx of concussion information that Rybczynski was something of a pioneer as she experienced brain trauma seven years ago, mere days after an injury to hockey superstar Sidney Crosby got world attention focused on the invisible injury.
Some of Rybczynski’s first medical advice suggested that she needed a “better attitude” and that she was suffering anxiety. (Even if she had been, she deserved better direction.)
Another physician offered this gem: “Concussions can be life changing. Good luck to you.” Then she was sent out the door without a referral.
The isolation she felt was unlike anything encountered in the Arctic.
“You feel like you’re living on another planet,” Rybczynski says. “You looked normal, but couldn’t follow conversations or follow humour. It was like being in a parallel universe.”
Concussion sufferers are typically go-getters, active, high-achieving people. Suddenly they can’t get off the couch without complaints of dizziness or other symptoms. Spouses and other loved ones struggle to understand.
Dr. Shawn Marshall, medical director of the acquired brain injury rehabilitation clinic at the Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre, says nearly 90 per cent of concussion patients get better. For the other 10-15 per cent, life changes caused by brain trauma can be difficult on families. Marriage breakups are common.
“When someone doesn’t improve, that can be very limiting and challenging for the family,” Marshall says. “The person looks fine, if it’s a concussion or brain injury, and it’s not evident why they should be handling it this way.
“That can lead to stress and strain if you don’t have an understanding what’s going on. I see that all the time.”
After trying to force her recovery and returning to work instantly — “I burned myself out”— Rybczynski lost her job at the museum and at Carleton, although she has since returned to the museum as a volunteer and to the university as adjunct professor.
Happily married to a successful high-tech entrepreneur, Rybczynski had to retreat from their Chelsea residence to live at home in Blackburn Hamlet with her parents most weekdays. She still relies on that support while imagining a day when she can again live full-time with her husband, capable of being at home alone when he’s working.
Yet she is more accepting of her limitations now.
“It’s life,” the academic says, “we learn through all these experiences as best we can and make connections, meet really cool people along the way.”
Once she imagined getting better in a matter of days. Now she measures her progress by years, including slow but steady progress in the past year.
Last summer she was still vomiting frequently. This summer, despite the heat and humidity, she has felt better. She goes for walks and ice cream with fellow concussion survivor Meg Milne.
Hills are an issue as they raise Rybczynski’s heart rate and can bring on headaches, but she hopes she can at least participate in some field work next year at the Haughton impact crater on Devon Island, the world’s largest uninhabited island, north of Baffin Island.
The crater attracts scores of NASA Mars researchers because the permafrost conditions are similar and the cold and barren landscape mimic what an astronaut might encounter on the red planet. A paleobiologist like Rybczynski prefers to scour the crater for vertebrate fossils, bones that ended up in an ancient lake there and were preserved by sediment.
“We’re looking for fossils and our neighbours are running around in space suits,” Rybczynski says with a laugh. “They have more funding than us, so it’s fun to visit their camp and get fed really well.”
In the many months before she can take on this daunting trip, Rybczynski will think about Mary Dawson for inspiration. Dawson, now 88, was 80 when she accompanied Rybczynski and other fossil hounds on a trip to the High Arctic. A pioneer female explorer, the American Dawson is widely considered among the greatest fossil researchers of her time.
“Having her there was amazing,” Rybczynski says. “She was the first paleontologist to go the Arctic, and, being a female in the ’70s, it was an incredible story.”
If Dawson could explore as an octogenerian, perhaps Rybczynski can get around well enough despite her limitations from brain trauma.
“My colleagues can write the permits,” Rybcynski says. “I will just show up and help out.”
This article was reprinted with the permission of the writer Wayne Scanlan and was originally posted on the Ottawa Citizen.