Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s doctor: Goal is to get driver ‘feeling normal as a human being’

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DARLINGTON, South Carolina – One of the primary doctors treating Dale Earnhardt Jr. views the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s recovery as a two-step process, and the first has nothing to do with NASCAR.

“When I first saw Dale, my goal was to see Dale become a human being again,” Dr. Micky Collins said Sunday during a news conference at Darlington Raceway. “I can tell you with confidence that is occurring in front of our eyes. He’s feeling better. He can tolerate a lot more. He’s having fewer and fewer symptoms, and is doing very well. That is the No. 1 goal is to get Dale feeling normal as a human being.

“The second goal is Dale becoming a race car driver again, and yes we will be working on that as well. I’m very confident we’re moving in right direction in that respect.”

Collins, who works at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program, said Earnhardt was “pretty sick” with symptoms involving vision, balance, anxiety and mood when the Hendrick Motorsports driver initially was evaluated six weeks ago.

Suffering from the symptoms of a concussion sustained in the June 12 race at Michigan International Speedway, Earnhardt will miss the second half of the 2016 Sprint Cup season while recovering from the head injury.

Hendrick announced Friday that the 13-time most popular driver would be sidelined for the final 12 races of the season after missing the past six events.

Collins indicated the decision was made to help alleviate the pressure of returning and allow Earnhardt to focus on his recovery. Dr. Jerry Petty, the Charlotte-based neurosurgeon who frequently has worked with NASCAR drivers, made the decision with Collins.

“Though he’s improving, it’s very clear that his test results and our findings and things we look at are not back to normal,” Collins said. “Dale is a competitor. He wants to be back in the race car like no other. The stress he puts on himself is very apparent.

“He wants to race. I feel very strongly the right decision was made to take Dale out of racing so he can focus on him getting better. Just the stress associated with that. Stress and concussion don’t get along well. We see stress can really exacerbate and worsen things. I don’t think it’s coincidence since we made that decision, we’re starting to see a lot of progress here.”

Collins said an encouraging sign was being able to use exercise and vision therapies with Earnhardt that are designed to match specific types of concussions.

“Over the last two to three weeks, the fruits of that labor are now paying off,” Collins said. “Dale has been a model patient. Dale has worked as hard as any patient. He’s very diligent about doing his therapies. We have very specific treatments that are targeting these problems that Dale has, and we’re seeing the benefits of that.”

Earnhardt has said his doctors were concerned his Michigan crash shouldn’t have caused a concussion based on its severity. Research has shown the effects of head injuries are cumulative, and it’s considered a red flag when lesser impacts cause greater effects.

“We want to make sure we get Dale’s systems rehabbed to the point to where he feels normal and hopefully to the point that we don’t see less force cause this to come back,” Collins said. “Hopefully, we’re building to a point where he can withstand normal forces that a race car driver could face. If he had a significant force, that could cause an injury as it would anyone. That’s what we’re trying to do at that level.”

There also is an increased level of susceptibility with head trauma. After the first concussion, a person is four to six times more likely to sustain another.

Collins still is encouraged that Earnhardt will have the option of choosing to race again, though he couldn’t establish a timeline. Earnhardt and his team are hopeful of a return for the 2017 Daytona 500.

“To get him to that level of being a race car driver is a different set of skills than any of us have,” Collins said. “I’m very confident that we’ll be able to do that. Right now, I don’t have specific criteria because we have time.

“We will need to stress the systems enough to see if they produce any problems and rehab those systems enough to where he won’t run into problems with this injury. I feel confident we’re heading in the right direction. … With concussions, the only times you run into problems is when it’s not managed appropriately. That’s what we’re doing with this, taking the time we need and treatments that are needed.”