Surviving a Brain Injury

by Sara Browning

Central Illinois’ Brain Injury Group is taking steps to inform the public about brain injuries while reaching out to support victims and their families.

What is a Brain Injury?

The Brain Injury Association of America defines an acquired brain injury as an injury to the brain that occurs after birth and “which is not hereditary, congenial or degenerative.” Brain injuries vary from mild to extremely severe, the latter of which is known as TBI, or traumatic brain injury. Traumatic brain injury results when “an external physical force produces a diminished or altered state of consciousness,” such as in cases of vehicle accidents, falls, sports injuries and violence.

Chris Hess, president of the Brain Injury Group, has been working with brain injury victims and their families for more than eight years. The Brain Injury Group, known as BIG, Inc., serves brain injury survivors in Peoria and Tazewell counties and throughout central Illinois. A non-profit organization, the Peoria group provides education, social events, group discussion, special speakers and fundraising opportunities. Proceeds enable survivors to participate in summer camps at Lake Bloomington, take part in bowling outings and attend the annual Brain Injury Association of Illinois Educational Conference. The support group also sponsors a 5K Run in August and a golf outing in September. Because the frequency of brain injuries in America is on the rise, Hess is making a conscious effort to inform central Illinois residents of the characteristics, psychological effects and recovery and prevention methods associated with acquired brain damage.

An Uphill Battle

Every 15 seconds, one person in the United States will suffer from brain injury. According to Hess, most brain injuries occur between the ages of 15 and 33 years old. Research documented in 2001 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that approximately 1.5 million Americans sustain a traumatic brain injury each year.

Hess, whose own daughter suffered from traumatic brain injury when she was involved in a car crash eight years ago, identifies with the hardships victims and loved ones face. “For people who have never suffered from or known someone who has suffered from brain damage, statistics just seem like numbers,” she says. “But when it happens to someone in your family, it changes everything.”

Recognizing the Symptoms

According to Hess, brain injuries are unique to different individuals, just as individuals themselves are unique. Due to the wide variety of brain injuries, different injuries encompass different characteristics. Physical impairments may include speech complications, hearing loss, paralysis, frequent headaches, blurred vision, seizure disorder, muscle spasticity and reduced endurance. Cognitive impairments encompass an inability to concentrate, short attention spans and poor communication and writing skills. Behavioral and emotional changes may also take place, including fatigue, anxiety, restlessness, low self-esteem, depression, lack of motivation, self-centeredness and an inability to cope.

According to research documented by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institutes of Health, some symptoms may not surface until days, or even weeks, following a traumatic brain injury. Persons with moderate to severe TBI may experience nausea, convulsions, an inability to awaken from sleep, restlessness or agitation. Children may exhibit persistent crying or a refusal to eat.

A Signature Wound

Military doctors have labeled a traumatic brain injury as the signature wound for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Changes in air pressure during explosions and frequent roadside bombings cause air bubbles to form in the brain and then burst to create damage. As many as 30 percent of injured soldiers are victims of TBI, but many brain injuries are never diagnosed due to the fact that the soldiers have no visible head wounds. Because mild to moderate TBI tends to affect the parts of the brain that control emotions, soldiers with TBI who exhibit extreme anger and rage are often misdiagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In late January 2008, a new state program known as the Illinois Warrior Assistance Program was launched to provide free services to Illinois National Guard members, active duty service members and veterans for screening for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. The first state program of its kind, the Illinois Warrior Assistance Program was devised by Dr. Felise Zollman, medical director for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Brain Injury Program, and her colleagues. The program provides confidential assistance for Illinois veterans as they transition back to their everyday lives after serving their country. It seeks to help service members and their families deal with the emotional and psychological challenges they may be facing. The program is estimated to cost about $8 million.

To contact the 24-hour help line for service members and veterans for information regarding symptoms of and screenings for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, call 866-554-4927.

Victims of Change

Although on the surface brain injuries may seem to affect only the victims of brain damage, this type of trauma has a dramatic impact on family, close friends, coworkers and other social networks. Roles reverse. Relationships change. Life is often radically different.

Hess’ daughter, once married with two children, is now in a wheelchair and living under the care and supervision of her mother. The medical bills reached one million dollars. After insurance ran out, the financial burden became too much for her marriage. Hess claims that families in general usually do not receive much outside support. “It’s a lot of stress and a lot of work, and it’s so hard for families to handle it,” she said. “An individual can go from being very lucrative to working at a minimum-wage job. Personalities do a 180-degree turn. Attitudes, emotions, everything is off center.”

Now attending Winning Wheels Rehabilitation Center, Hess’ daughter is relearning the basic life skills most take for granted. “She had to relearn how to do everything,” says Hess. “I started out spoon-feeding her. After awhile I began teaching her how to feed herself until she learned how to eat on her own. I also recited children’s nursery rhymes with her so she could practice certain syllables. Today her speech is much improved.”

The Road Less Traveled

The road to recovery is a path that remains a challenge for victims and a mystery to outsiders. The recovery process is three-fold: Learn. Identify. Adjust. In other words, loved ones must learn what a brain injury is, identify the changes the injury has caused its victim and help the victim adjust to the new limitations result ing from the injury. Here are seven things families of victims can do to aid in the recovery process:

  1. Reinforce behaviors you would like to see increase.
  2. When safety is not an issue, ignore behaviors you would like to see decrease.
  3. Model behaviors you would like to see.
  4. Avoid situations that provoke behaviors you are trying to reduce.
  5. Structure the environment. Use cues to enforce positive behaviors.
  6. Redirect a person. Do not challenge them.
  7. Never hesitate to seek professional help soon after the traumatic incident.

A New Self

According to the Brain Injury Association of Illinois in Chicago, the catastrophic nature of many types of brain injuries causes victims and their families to experience an array of emotional responses. The onset of an injury often brings depression, sadness and a feeling of hopelessness as the injured and those close to them come to terms with the harsh reality of the long road ahead. Victims may later experience growth and joy as they begin to adjust to the changes created by the brain injury. Adjustment does not necessarily indicate that a victim approves of the necessary changes; however, it does show that the victim realizes he is no longer the person he was before the trauma. Rather than struggling to reclaim his lost self, he arranges his life and sets his goals based on his current capabilities and begins to accept his new self.

The Best Precautions

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the following safety tips may reduce the risk of TBI in adults and children:

  • Wear a seatbelt.
  • Buckle very young children into safety seats every time they ride in cars.
  • Wear a helmet on a bicycle or motorcycle, during any type of contact sport and when skating, horseback riding, skiing or snowboarding.
  • Keep firearms and bullets stored in a locked cabinet when not in use.
  • Avoid falls by using a stepstool with a grab bar, installing handrails on stairways, installing window guards for young children and using safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs.
  • Make sure the surface on a child’s playground is made of shock-absorbing material, such as hardwood mulch or sand.

Learning to Live Again

Specialists of the Brain Injury Association of Illinois claim that looking back, many victims and their families view an injury as a crucial turning point toward leading happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives during which more is given and more is appreciated. Support groups allow individuals to share with and be there for one another and also provide an atmosphere in which positive and negative views can be expressed without judgement. Victims not only regain a sense of who they are, but they also gain vast knowledge to help them and their families stay informed and up-to-date on faucets regarding brain injuries.

For more information on the Brain Injury Group or to volunteer your time, call 677-7777 or contact Chris Hess at 565-0115. BIG meetings are open to the public and held the second Thursday of every month at 7pm at the UAW Hall, 3025 Springfield Road in East Peoria. TPW

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