Think: March Is Brain Injury Awareness Month

The sheer number of people with brain injury and all those who love and care for them should make apparent the need for broad attention and concern. Brain injury impinges on the whole person, not just one's legs or lungs, and its consequences are unpredictable.
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My older sister, Molly, has a severe brain injury from carbon monoxide poisoning. Her husband died as he lay next to her in the hotel bed. After nine days in a coma, Molly emerged. But not the Molly I knew. That Molly is gone.

Brain injury changes everything.

Molly has degrees from Stanford and Yale and was a publishing executive and an extraordinary athlete. But she had to learn to walk and to swallow again. She could read and she knew her family and friends, but she didn't know the difference between a hairbrush and a hammer.

My book A Normal Life tells the story of my sister's brain injury -- how it changed her and impacted our close relationship. How our entire family was turned inside out by the harrowing complexities of this most damaging and mysterious of injuries.

Is there brain injury in your life? It's a good time to think about this question. March is National Brain Injury Awareness month. And it's likely that many of us will be impacted by some form of brain injury in our lifetimes.

Brain injury is often called the "invisible injury" because its numerous and serious complications are not always readily apparent. But whether you see them or not, more than 5.3 million Americans currently have a long-term or lifelong need for help just to live their daily lives as result of traumatic brain injury (TBI), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Every year, 1.7 million to 2.4 million people sustain TBIs. These numbers are even greater with acquired brain injuries (ABIs), like my sister's, added in. And for each person with a brain injury, family members, loved ones, and friends are impacted by the brain injury, too.

TBI is an injury to the brain caused by an external force after birth, such as a bump or jolt or a penetration to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain. Some common causes of TBI are motor vehicle crashes, falls, assaults, blasts and explosions, gunshot wounds, and collisions.

ABI includes all types of TBIs plus brain injuries after birth from causes including illness, infection, substance abuse, toxic exposure, stroke, tumor, and hypoxia or loss of oxygen to the brain, such as near drowning or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Even though congenital or degenerative diseases are not classified as ABIs, those with dementia, Alzheimer's, or Parkinson's in their lives, know that the difficulty of coping with these conditions is similar to the challenges of brain injury.

One group being ravaged by brain injury is the military. Sadly, TBI is the "signature injury" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As we welcome home the more than 2.2 million troops who have served in these conflicts, veterans' advocates say that between 10 percent and 20 percent, or more than 330,000 service members from these wars have some level of TBI. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 30 percent of soldiers have been diagnosed as having TBI.

From explosions to sports concussions, from gun violence to carbon monoxide poisoning, brain injuries fill our news headlines and our neighborhoods. Every year, more than 53,000 deaths occur from TBI, making TBI the leading cause of injury death and disability in the U.S. People of all ages, races/ethnicities, and incomes are affected; brain injury does not discriminate.

Still, brain injuries remain an under-recognized and difficult public health problem. I didn't know anything about brain injury until my sister's accident occurred. Now I know more. I know how to help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. But mostly I'm aware of the "invisible injury" as pervasive.

The sheer number of people with brain injury and all those who love and care for them should make apparent the need for broad attention and concern. Brain injury impinges on the whole person, not just one's legs or lungs, and its consequences are unpredictable. No two brains are alike and no two brain injuries are the same, making treatment a crapshoot and caregiving dismaying and heartbreaking.

Brain injury changes how an individual thinks, reacts, learns, communicates, and behaves physically and emotionally. It alters personalities, which in turn impacts everyone's well-being and relationships. When brain injury enters your world, it will flip upside down everything you thought you understood about your loved one and yourself.

A psychologist who was helping my sister early in her treatment gathered my family together and told us, "when one person in the family gets a brain injury, everyone in the family gets a brain injury." We had no idea what he meant at first, but soon the ripple effect of my sister's brain injury was washing over us. Our collective family brain injury hit each of us and impaired our judgment, communication, planning, and ability to cope. Only our eventual recognition of the psychologist's sage warning helped us to right our behavior. But it is this consuming effect that will have brain injury impact so many of our lives, even as we stand by and try to think straight.

Learn more about Lyrysa Smith, her writing work, and her book, A Normal Life: A Sister's Odyssey Through Brain Injury at her website

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