Life and work after traumatic brain injury poses many challenges
Wednesday, March 31st, 2010
More than a million Americans suffer a Traumatic Brain Injury each year. Half of those injuries occur in car accidents, but an increasing number in wars overseas. The struggle to help people cope with these life-changing injuries continues.
When he awoke from a three-month long coma, Jack Scanlan had some very basic questions.
Scanlan: Where am I? What happened?
That was 27 years ago. Jack was sixteen then, and had sustained severe head injuries in a drunken driving accident. He had been an athlete playing high school football and baseball – and his competitive spirit helped him through the grueling rehab process.
Scanlan: I was trying to do better in each activity, to be the best that I could be.
Scanlan did relearn how to walk and talk, but his gait and his speech remain impaired.
Scanlan: I do feel held back from attaining my full potential and I do feel that there are many many more things that I can do.
Right now, he works in a sheltered workshop with other brain injury survivors. For someone with Scanlan's high aspirations, it can be a frustrating place. Workers here do simple tasks such as putting together screws and washers, or stuffing envelopes. But Terry Hersch, director of employment services at Independence Hall Industries, says these jobs can be a lifeline for his employees:
Hersch: Could you imagine a life… now, you are a new person because of the head injury, you have all of these deficits and nothing to do. Here there is a challenge every day, I mean, it doesn't look like a challenge because it's a simple task, but it takes a lot of energy to make it through a day when you have a head injury.
Brain trauma can cause physical disabilities such as paralysis. It can also affect cognition and behavior. Timothy Young is medical director for brain injury at Philadelphia's Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.
The speed at which they can process information, their ability to filter out and focus on tasks, sometimes even their ability to control impulses, sometimes people with brain injuries are a little bit too honest, for their own good, and their employers' good.
Young says life after these devastating injuries is about setting goals for survivors without overburdening them.
They want to go back to work. They want to drive again. They want to contribute in a positive way. That's where their sense of identity is. But if somebody goes back too soon, without the proper modifications, we see a real decline in how they do.
In seeking career opportunities, Jack Scanlan has experienced many setbacks and new beginnings. He says he is ready for a bigger challenge. But when people hear how he speaks, they think he's not capable of doing a job. This frustrates him to no end.
Scanlan: When I know very well that I would be a very good asset for a major company, in at least showing that a person with a disability can do what is needed.
Lane Brown, program director for the brain injury and stroke programs at Magee, says brain injuries are tricky because they can create a big gap between appearance and ability, which cuts two ways.
Brown: The person who looks completely intact may be having tremendous difficulty processing information, listening, understanding what they are hearing quickly. On the other hand, someone who has maybe some real disfluency in how they are speaking may not have any issues in understanding what's being communicated.
Jack Scanlan is hoping to create his own opportunities. He is starting a non-profit organization lobbying for brain injury survivors, and connecting them with creative opportunities. He feels that many people are afraid of his disability – and that's what he hopes to change.
Magee's Lane Brown says educating the public about brain injuries will help people like Jack succeed.
Brown: Brain injury survivors are still capable of doing many things, and often it's about adapting the environment to the survivor, and often it's possible to do the work, if the environment can be supportive.
The stakes here are high. Over 25,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have sustained traumatic brain injuries – and will need the kind of support and opportunity that Jack Scanlan seeks.