THE AMERICAN BRAIN INJURY EPIDEMIC

As a brain injury survivor and one who works with brain injury survivors I am saddened but not surprised that a leading expert in forensic pathology says former National Football League player Andre Waters’s November 2006 suicide was likely tied to brain damage suffered by Mr. Waters over his playing career.

The New York Times today said forensics expert Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh “determined that (Andre) Waters’s brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s and that if he had lived, within 10 or 15 years “Andre Waters would have been fully incapacitated.””

There is an epidemic of brain injuries in the United States and we, as a people, are playing catch-up. In some quarters we are waging the catch-up battle valiantly, but we have a long way to go.

I sustained my brain injury in 1984 when I was held up and shot in the head at point blank range. While I received extraordinary medical care, no one, and I mean no one, mentioned the words brain injury or brain damage to me. And so I left the hospital with a bullet in my frontal lobe, bone spray in my left temporal lobe, and a sharp awareness that I would be wise to avoid contact sports.

It would be nearly 10 years before I learned that the damage to my brain impacted my daily life in a very real way. I am far from alone and not even in the same room with unique on this front. Millions of Americans deal with brain injuries. Think this is an overstatement? Try these facts on for size.

– With more than 50,000 Americans dying every year from brain injuries, it is safe to say more than 1 million Americans have died in the 22 years since I was injured, including more than 150,000 children.
– 1.4 million Americans sustain brain injuries annually.
– In 1995, direct medical costs coupled with lost production cost the United States an estimated $56.3 billion.
– Many members of the American military wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered brain injuries.

If you think only football players or those in contact sports run the risk of injuries like those suffered by Mr. Waters, you are sadly mistaken. A couple of years ago I went to a conference on brain injury at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. A forensics expert showed that if you have someone lie down on their back, lift their head 12 inches off the ground, and let go, the skull is travelling 40 miles per hour when it strikes the surface.

We are not quite holding our own in this catch-up battle. There was, after all, no brain injury association on the national level until 1980. Now we have the Brain Injury Association of America, a wonderful organization. States have their respective brain injury associations, all deserving of their citizens support. I am a member and board member of the Brain Injury Association of New York.

Unlike cuts and bruises and broken bones, brain injuries do not heal. Yet the reluctance of so many to take simple precautions is mind boggling. I have seen the following scene too many times. A family is on a bicycle ride. The children are dutifully wearing their helmets (sometimes) while the parents are not wearing their helmets. Perhaps the parents think that adulthood means they are no longer beholden to the law of gravity. Or, perhaps, there is a bit of vanity at work, some concern that one’s hairstyle will get messed, or, some “real man” doesn’t wear a helmet because he is , well, a “real man”. Dazzling displays of reasoning for sure. Tell you what though, when you’re paralyzed and/or you can’t remember what happened five minutes ago, remind me to ask you who your hair stylist is, or what it’s like to be a “real man.” But then again, why should I bother? You won’t remember anyway.

If you are from New York State, you can contact the Brain Injury Association of New York, the one I belong to at http://www.bianys.org/

Contact the Brain Injury Association of America for information on a Brain Injury Association near you. Please visit their website at http://www.biausa.org/

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