John B. Fortune, MD, FACS is a trauma and critical care surgeon and the Medical Director of the Vermont Regional Trauma Center at the UVM Medical Center. He is also a Professor of Surgery at the University of Vermont.

Two years ago, my college-aged son and I were skiing at a local slope and he was showing me all of his tricks in the “park” (you know:  the rails, and the jumps, and such).  I watched him fall and strike his head on one of the rails and even though he was wearing a helmet (that didn’t fit very well), the resounding ‘clunk’ suggested something awful.

Following 90 seconds of unconsciousness, 10 minutes of confused speech, and 30 minutes of disorientation, he finally returned to normal and has done well since.

But for those 41 and a half minutes (which seemed like an eternity), I truly thought that things were never going to be the same again.  At that moment, brain injury awareness struck a personal note with me.  My son did well from his minor concussion.  However, based on this experience I simply could not imagine the emotional and physical devastation associated with a more serious brain injury that would have resulted in a permanent disability.  Since then, I hug him a little harder and tell him that I love him a little more often.

Staggering Numbers

In honor of National Trauma Awareness month, I did a little research into brain injury.  On the website for the Brain Injury Association of America, I came across some interesting facts about brain injury of which even I as a trauma surgeon was unaware.

  • Over 1.7 million people, including 475,000 children sustain brain injury in the U.S. each year.  Nearly 52,000 will die.
  • Brain injury is a contributing factor to a third of all injury-related deaths in the U.S.
  • The cost of brain injury in the U.S. (including lost wages) approaches $76.3 billion each year.

These numbers are staggering!

Bitter Truth about Brain Injury

at the UVM Medical Center, we have a world class trauma center staffed by outstanding trauma surgeons, neurosurgeons, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists and a multitude of experts in other medical areas.  When a patient with a head injury arrives in our trauma center, we all work together to do those things that are required to improve the outcome.  While we do a wonderful job at preventing these patients from getting worse and providing medical support through the healing process, the bitter truth is that we have no tools to make a brain injury better.  Once the brain cells have sustained severe damage, there is no way to effectively return them to normal even with the best of our medical interventions.

Do people survive major brain injuries?  Of course, and many return to a productive life.  But, in spite of our best efforts with acute interventions, surgery, and intensive rehabilitation, many patients with head injuries will survive with some sort of permanent disability.  Currently, it has been estimated that 3.1 million Americans are living with a life-long disability as a result of traumatic brain injury.  How tragic!

Protect your Brain!

It is extremely important that you always have an awareness of brain injury and take steps to protect your brain in situations in which it might get injured.  Consider this:

  • Always wear helmets in sports activities (skiing, bicycling, riding ATV’s, etc.) during which accidents and falls might result in a head injury
  • Wear your seatbelt.  Use of restraints reduce the incidence of injury in a car crash by 40%.
  • Seek professional help for your children who have sustained a concussion in sporting events.  Consider getting medical clearance before allowing your child to resume participation in the sport.
  • Live defensively!  When I took a driver’s education course in high school, the common mantra was to ‘drive defensively’. I guess this means that we are to actively anticipate potential dangers in the road up ahead and avoid them.  With respect to head injury, I think that this defensive approach applies to all that we do.  Do I want to get up on that rickety old ladder to clean my gutters?  Is it important for me to glide 35 mph down this rutted hill on my bike?  Do I really want to feel the freedom of skiing at breakneck speed through the backcountry glade with trees brushing on both my elbows? Exhilaration is momentary – brain injuries can be permanent!

During Trauma Awareness Month, all of the members of the UVM Medical Center trauma team would like to wish you the best as we all enjoy nature’s beauty in the transition into summer.  But, as the summer season begins, please remember that “brain injuries do not discriminate”.  We only have one brain – show it that you love it by keeping it safe!

 John B. Fortune, MD, FACS is a trauma and critical care surgeon and the Medical Director of the Vermont Regional Trauma Center at the UVM Medical Center.  He is also a Professor of Surgery at the University of Vermont.

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