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Former two-sport athlete Whitlock now helps patients locally with neurosurgery
Lambert alum quit sports after series of concussions
Billy Whitlock
LEFT: Billy Whitlock is now a physician assistant at Neurosurgery Answer, a private neurosurgical practice at Northside Forsyth. RIGHT: Lambert catcher Billy Whitlock applies the tag on North Forsyth pinch-runner Bailey Mauldin during a game in 2013. File photo

Billy Whitlock doesn't recall how he got to the hospital or what he was doing there. 

It didn't take long, however, for Whitlock to realize that a concussion had sent him to the hospital. The head injury was one of six concussions Whitlock suffered before his 18th birthday, all while playing baseball and football.

He remembers a couple of them, but not every one. And by the time Whitlock was a sophomore at Lambert, he recognized that his body seemed to take longer that usual to recover.

"I remember there were times my sophomore year where I was only in school for two or three hours a day, because I just couldn't handle being around the people, the sounds and the noise," he said. "It would bring back all the symptoms of what people experience hours after a concussion, with the headache and the nausea. For me, that lasted continuously for five or six months."

When he was at school, Whitlock would walk around in a daze.

"I always described it as, when you watch those movies in a big city and it's like they're speeding up time and all you see are the lights of the cars flashing in the city," Whitlock said. "That's how, when I would walk through the halls at school, that's what I was seeing."

So, Whitlock took his doctor's recommendation and made the decision to sit out his senior year altogether — no baseball, no football. 

For Whitlock, who graduated in 2014, that meant missing Lambert's historic baseball season, where the Longhorns capped a 36-2 season with a Class 6A state championship.

"Not only was it a difficult decision to make to stop playing," Whitlock remembers, "it was a difficult time to be going through, in the sense that the symptoms were still there and I was still having problems lingering from the head injuries previously."

Whitlock began seeing a neurologist regularly while in high school, which piqued his interest in the field. 

By the time he graduated from Lambert and entered his freshman year at Auburn, Whitlock knew exactly what he wanted to do: he wanted be a physician assistant in the field of neurology.

More precisely, he wanted to give patients the sort of instant results that seemed to elude him during his youth, as his symptoms lingered and became more severe with each injury.

"For the most part, the results are seen right away," Whitlock said of neurosurgery. "A lot of times — not all the time — it's a definitive solution to a problem. I like being able to see a patient in the office, then we operate, and the next day or two days later we see them in the hospital and they're doing so much better. It's kind of an instant gratification."

"That term 'minor concussion' is kind of an oxymoron. At the end of the day, there's nothing minor about a head trauma. I don't really care how you grade it, because a concussion at the end of the day is bruising to the brain. A small bruise to someone may have much larger impacts on their cognitive function and their symptoms, where it might not someone else. If you break a bone, it's not a minor break; it's a break."
Billy Whitlock

He graduated from Auburn with a bachelor's in kinesiology and exercise science, then earned his master's from Keiser University, with a stint at the Mayo Clinic in between.

Now Whitlock is back in Forsyth County, where he is a physician assistant at Neurosurgery Answer, a private neurosurgical practice at Northside Forsyth.

The practice treats patients for ailments such as herniated discs, spinal fractures and much more, but Whitlock takes a particular interest in the implementation of deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson's disease.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons describes deep brain stimulation as "an elective surgical procedure in which electrodes are implanted into certain brain areas." Those electrodes then control abnormal brain activity with their electrical impulses. 

"It's very gratifying to see someone with a bad tremor with Parkinson's who is unable to, because of the tremor, they're really unable to eat or bring food up to their mouth because they can't hold a fork. After the stimulation is on, just the little day-to-day activities like drinking a glass of water is resolved because they're not shaking," Whitlock said. "It's pretty gratifying to see the dramatic impacts that that has."

Whitlock sees concussion treatment improving, as well as the overall level of understanding regarding concussions.

Billy Whitlock
Billy Whitlock, top, began seeing a neurologist regularly while in high school, which piqued his interest in the field. File photo
He balks at the terms some use to grade concussions, such as a "minor" or "severe" concussion, and believes those categorizations are less accepted when he was in high school less than a decade ago.

"That term 'minor concussion' is kind of an oxymoron. At the end of the day, there's nothing minor about a head trauma," Whitlock said. "I don't really care how you grade it, because a concussion at the end of the day is bruising to the brain. A small bruise to someone may have much larger impacts on their cognitive function and their symptoms, where it might not someone else. If you break a bone, it's not a minor break; it's a break."

It's that individualized attention that Whitlock believes is key when diagnosing concussions. 

Listening to the player and understanding that it can take different people varying amounts of time to fully recover is paramount.

And despite Whitlock's abrupt exit from the sports world, he recommends that kids play sports and would have no qualms if his kids wanted to strap on a helmet or pick up a bat.

"I would absolutely let my kids play sports. You can't shelter kids," Whitlock said. "I think playing sports did and has done so much for me. I've made so many connections, and it obviously played a crucial part in who I am today, which I think is an invaluable experience.

"I think the good that comes from sports — football, baseball, hockey, soccer — I think far outweighs the possible risk of a concussion."