The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1.4 million people receive a Traumatic Brain Injury in the United States each year. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) has also become known as Iraq’s signature wound.
Dr. Pat Sample, a professor in the department of Occupational Therapy at CSU, studies TBI and what happens to TBI survivors. She and her colleagues recently completed a study in which they interviewed the survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing who suffered brain injury in the blast. They found that many survivors had never been talked to about their brain injury or received help for the after effects.
“They kind of got confused when we kept bringing that [brain injury] up,” Sample said. “A couple of guys said: ‘you know, they just basically told me that I’m going to be stupid now, and good luck.’ Who knows what really went on back then, but that’s the message they left with, you’re wrecked and good luck.”
These survivors represent a significantly large community with TBI that struggles with daily life and doesn’t receive the help they need.
But Sample and other occupational therapists, social workers and psychologists at CSU are working to remedy that situation.
CSU’s Center for Community Partnerships (CCP) helps TBI survivors connect with services in the community, especially with job assistance.
Donna Detmar-Hanna, an occupational therapist at CCP, said automobile accidents are the biggest cause of the brain injuries of CCP’s clients.
However, they expect to start seeing Iraq veterans soon, as more returning soldiers enroll in college or look for jobs outside the service.
The term TBI encompasses any damage to the brain from an outside force. The physical effects of brain injury vary widely, and include long-term coma, total paralysis, personality and mood changes, memory loss and bizarre, isolated losses of abilities.
“Every single brain injury is completely different, and every person is completely different,” said Rachel Gramig, a first year Master’s student in Occupational Therapy at CSU. Gramig worked with several people who had suffered brain injuries when she was an undergraduate in Recreation Therapy at the University of Tennessee.
She also saw first hand how brain injury changes a person when a friend fell off a waterfall in South America.
“Her personality was really different,” Gramig said. “She experienced daily seizures, which can cause even more brain damage.”
Her friend also lost the ability to visually recognize people she knew.
TBI also causes physical symptoms.
One widespread symptom of TBI is recurring headaches, Sample said. A less obvious but very common consequence is constant fatigue.
“(Fatigue) is probably one of the hugest things,” she said. “It’s so hard to be functioning with this brain that’s not working well for you, and you’ve just got to put so much more into your daily life than anyone else does, especially if people are expecting you to be just like you were prior to your injury.”
This can lead to a downward spiral in the lives of TBI survivors.
“People just start losing respect for you, thinking you are kind of just turning into a not OK person, when in reality you just can’t do it anymore,” Sample said. “Relationships crumble. If you’re married to somebody, and suddenly that person isn’t who you married, it’s really difficult. So it’s not very often that marriages survive a brain injury to one of the spouses, because one of the spouses becomes more of a parent, and the other spouse becomes someone needing all this help all the time.”
The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than 5.3 million Americans will need long-term or life-long help with their daily lives as a result of TBI.
Judy Dettmer, a social worker and direct services coordinator for CCP, said TBI survivors have trouble because “often brain injury is not visible.” Society doesn’t ask why a person is struggling and why he or she can’t just get on with their lives.
Survivors also have to adjust to reliance on other people. They may only need small things, like day planners with alarms to remind them of routine activities.
It’s sometimes as simple as needing someone to come in and put “sticky notes all over the house,” Sample said.
And insurance rarely covers long-term help. CCP finds services for people who could not otherwise afford them.
“Nobody ever shows up here with money, but they’re the ones who really need the help,” Sample said
“(TBI is) an equal opportunity condition,” Dettmer said. “It can happen to any of us.”
Dr. Sample said TBI is also a real danger for CSU students.
“I just go crazy looking around campus,” she said. “Bikes are leaping out from everywhere. Nobody has a helmet on. Nobody. One accident and your life is going to be real different. Just one.”
Staff Writer Beth Malmskog can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.