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Traumatic Brain Injury

November 2, 2015

Helen was the mother of two beautiful daughters and grandmother of three. She had just spent a pleasant Saturday morning working in her flowerbeds. Now in her mid-sixties, she and her husband were finalizing plans for their retirement. It was certain to be a topic of discussion over lunch. They would soon be heading out to their favorite Italian restaurant, but first she wanted to take a quick shower. Because she was in a hurry she was not a cautious as usual. As Helen was trying to adjust the sprayer she lost her balance and slipped. As she fell, her head struck the side of the tub with terrific force, fracturing the back of her skull and leaving her unconscious.

Ethan was driving to his friend’s house on a rainy Thursday night. In less than six weeks his buddy would be the best man at his wedding. Eighteen months ago, at the age of twenty-four, Ethan had found the love of his life. As he sat at a traffic light thinking about everything he and his fiancé had to do before the wedding he felt nervous. When the light turned green he eased his car into the intersection. Suddenly out of the corner of his eye he saw a large SUV, but he had no time to react as the driver ran the red light and crashed into his door without hitting the brakes. The impact smashed the metal of Ethan’s subcompact, crushing the left side of his skull.

Taylor was an active eight year old little girl with a new bike that she had gotten for her birthday the month before. Because she lived in a neighborhood without sidewalks she was riding up and down the street on a sunny afternoon. It didn’t take long for her to begin to feel warm so, even though she had been warned repeatedly by her parents not to, she took her helmet off and tossed it in the yard. A few minutes later as she neared the end of the street a car came around the corner startling her. Taylor overreacted and lost control. Her bike hit the side of the curb and threw her head first into the street. She hit the pavement, rolled one time, and then laid motionless.

All three of these individuals survived their accidents, however they each sustained a traumatic brain injury. In a split second their lives were changed forever, as were those of the families who loved them.

Helen’s plans for a beautiful retirement vanished in a heartbeat. Now her husband of forty plus years had to assume the role of caregiver as she bravely fought to regain her ability to organize her thoughts into understandable speech. Ethan’s upcoming wedding was placed on hold indefinitely as his fiancée wavered on whether she wanted to endure the emotional toll of sharing her future with a person whose personality had dramatically changed. Taylor’s parents were overwhelmed as they struggled to accept the fact that their little girl now had an intellectual challenge and had lost the use of her right arm and leg.

The life of each of these human beings was dramatically altered in an instant. There was no warning. It just happened. On the day that these accidents occurred, more than 4,600 other Americans shared the same fate. That group included toddlers, children, teenagers, adults and seniors from every walk of life. Among these individuals there were tragic deaths while others were left with significant intellectual and physical disabilities. Some were fortunate enough to make a full recovery and continue their lives without lingering effects. Thankfully advances in a wide range of medical technology, and an overall increase in our knowledge of the brain, has improved the likelihood of surviving such injuries.

However, when most people think of intellectual challenges they tend to focus on those who were born with a developmental disability. They naturally assume that these individuals were diagnosed at birth or as young children. They rarely stop to realize that brain function can be diminished at any moment. Patience, understanding and acceptance are important when dealing with people who have suffered a head injury no matter what their stage of life – and we can never discount the possibility that we could someday join their ranks.

In severe cases, a TBI not only has a life changing effect on the individual, it also impacts those that love them. Months and sometimes years of surgical procedures and various forms of therapy are often necessary to restore quality of life. The families endure the emotional distress of seeing their loved ones in physical pain and suffering from the mental effects of their brain injury. A person’s thought processes, their emotional stability and there psychological state can all be adversely affected by the trauma.

Here are the statistics regarding traumatic brain injuries in the United States:

An estimated 1.7 million people sustain a TBI annually.

TBI’s are responsible for 52,000 deaths each year.

275,000 are hospitalized with TBI’s annually.

5.3 million Americans currently live with disabilities resulting from TBI.

Moderate to severe brain injury is associated with an increased risk of dementia.

Leading causes of traumatic brain injuries:

Falls 35.2%

Vehicle accidents 17.3%

Blows to the head (struck by / against) including sports injuries 16.5%

Assault 10%

Unknown 21%

Another cause of TBI’s that is frequently not listed separately in statistics is combat. Heartbreakingly, traumatic brain injuries have always been a part of war, and too often our soldiers return home with catastrophic wounds. Blasts from explosive devices are one of the leading causes of brain damage among personnel in military conflicts. It is believed that between 10% and 20% of Iraq veterans have some level of brain injury. These men and women are permanently affected as they begin the long struggle to recovery. The courage they demonstrate at home is just as great as the courage they showed on the battlefield. Our nation has a responsibility to make certain that they receive the very best of care and that their families are assisted in every way possible as they try to build a future together.

Of course no matter how a TBI occurs or who it happens to, each person deserves our compassion and support as they make the difficult journey back to good health. Most importantly each individual must be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Helen will require assistance bathing for the rest of her life. Ethan will never drive a car again. Taylor will always need to use a walker to assist with her mobility. But those facts do not make them less of a person. Their lives matter just as much as they did before the accidents. Their value and worth has not changed even though they are not the same as they once were.

In the end we have to ask ourselves, what is it that makes us human? Is it physical capacity? Is it cognitive function? Is it the ability to communicate? Is it a certain level of awareness? Or is it something that occurs much deeper inside of an individual?

It is beyond inspiring that after such a devastating injury a person struggles and battles with everything they’ve got to recover their sense of being. There is no greater testament to the power of the human spirit than the strength and determination shown by those who fight to regain as much of their life as possible after a traumatic brain injury.

Surely it is that indomitable desire to live that defines our humanity.