Guest Post: Brain Injury Awareness Month: Anne McDonnell – Minimizing the negative effects of brain injury

Re Posted: from | Friday, March 1, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 9:50 pm, Sun Mar 3, 2013.

We’ve never met, but Gabby Giffords is one of my heroes, and I hope to meet her when she and her husband appear at the Richmond Forum next week.

As an occupational therapist who specialized in brain injury rehabilitation, I have worked with many patients who sustained terrible injuries, and I know how hard everyone worked for Giffords’ recovery from the shooting that nearly took her life. I have become emotional watching her journey…the first images from the hospital, the interview with Diane Sawyer, announcing and delivering her resignation from Congress, testifying at the Senate hearing on gun control after the Newtown shooting. I am empathetic to what she and her family have been through, happy for and in awe of her recovery, and hurt that so many people are not able to get the same amazing care she did.

Our magnificent brain is what makes it possible for us to laugh, love and live in this world, yet so many take it for granted. It is our internal motherboard, and we are nothing without it. Falls are the No. 1 cause of brain injury, but we are more likely to buy and use helmets for our smart phones than for our heads. Each year more than 1 million Americans sustain a brain injury — that’s more than hear a diagnosis of cancer, and yet more money is devoted to treating and curing cancer than treating and curing brain injury. Cancer is a devastating disease, but brain injury leads to a lifetime of chronic diseases, and more resources should be devoted to finding answers that improve treatment and lead to a cure.

How do we stop, slow or reverse the damage caused by brain injury? How do we preserve and protect brain function that remains after an injury? What are the long-term consequences of brain injury, and what can we do to minimize negative effects? Research shows that brain injury can lead to homelessness, joblessness and mental health disorders. Research also shows the right treatment at the right time by the right team optimizes recovery and decreases dependency, and that the cost of rehabilitation is far less than the costs of long term care. Giffords got the best care possible, and is a perfect example of our ability to save lives and improve function.

Yet lengths of hospital stays for treatment after brain injury have plummeted from 48 days in 1990 to 16 days in 2011. Injuries haven’t become less severe, and we haven’t uncovered any miraculous shortcuts; people are just being discharged sicker and quicker. Many are surprised to learn the amount of care someone needs after brain injury is often not what they get, and families are often disappointed in the limits of their insurance policies. The costs of brain injury can and often does force a family into dire financial situations, and limits on the type and amount of treatments lead to higher than necessary levels of disability.

Nearly 200,000 Virginians are disabled as a result of brain injury, which is roughly the same number as those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. State funding for brain injury supports and services is less than $4 million, while in the last two years $40 million was included in Virginia’s budget to fund a federally required expansion of community based placements for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Virginia’s state funded community based brain injury services offer critical core safety net supports and services to vulnerable people who desperately need help, but waiting lists exceed 3 years, and the few programs trying to cover the entire Commonwealth of Virginia are under resourced and underfunded.

A small subset of people with brain injury have significant behavioral issues that put their safety and the safety of others at risk, and several of them have been placed in out-of-state facilities. The system of care in Virginia for those with brain injury who struggle with behavioral issues is inadequate, and the inability to get the right help at the right time has culminated in deaths, placed others at great risk, and let many people down.

Brain injury is terribly misunderstood. It happens as a result of falls, heart attacks, strokes and more often than not, someone else’s bad choice. It’s more than just a “bump on the head.” It can cause and accelerate chronic and degenerative illnesses such as epilepsy and dementia. It can destroy lives and cause financial devastation. It can shatter dreams, and force many of those it touches to live a life smaller than it was destined to be.

Most people, like Gabby Giffords, work hard and get better after their injury; for some it becomes one facet of a long and full life. But for the 4,000 Americans who will sustain a brain injury today, the problem deserves to be recognized for the serious public health epidemic it is, researched so we can find a cure, and given the resources that provide help, hope and healing.

Anne McDonnell is the executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Virginia, which celebrates its 30th anniversary of service in 2013. She can be reached at 804-355-5748 or

The personal injury law firm of Allen & Allen is a proud support of the Asociación de Lesiones Cerebrales de Virginia.