Getting to the heart of aiding the brain injured

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      Vic Johnson doesn’t remember much about the night his life changed forever. He was at a social function for work when he stepped out onto a deck to have a cigarette. Days later, he woke up from a medically induced coma. He learned he had fallen more than five metres and had fractured his skull in three places.

      That was three years ago. Today, the 29-year-old Vancouver resident is still coming to terms with his injury.

      “It’s really tough to get back on the road again,” Johnson says in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “I’ve had a lot of depression.”¦I wish I could go back and change things, but I can’t go back. I just have to deal with what I have and just move forward.”

      The former office manager has made progress: for one, he just started taking a college accounting class.

      “I’m trying to get back into things, trying to fit into society,” he says. “It’s really hard. I can only take one class because it builds up in my head. I have trouble concentrating.”

      Another effect of Johnson’s brain injury was social isolation. After the accident, he retreated to his parents’ home, never getting out and rarely speaking to anyone.

      Then he started going to the Lower Mainland Brain Injury Association’s drop-in centre in New Westminster. It had a pool table. One of Johnson’s favourite things to do in his early 20s was play billiards. At the drop-in centre, he started playing, at first listening to music on his headphones so he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Slowly, he began to see that he was among friends.

      “I started to meet people,” Johnson says. “I learned that everyone has problems and everyone’s injury is different. It helped me to see that in some ways I was very lucky—a lot of people are a lot worse off than I am. My nature is to want to help other people.”¦I could do that by playing pool and talking to them.”

      The LMBIA’s drop-in centre, in operation for six years, shut down late last year as a result of a lack of funds. According to the association, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority withdrew core funding in 2007, saying LMBIA should be funded by the Fraser Health Authority. The association applied there for money but says “its efforts were unsuccessful”. The association—which also provides support groups and educational workshops, among other services—is trying to find a way to resurrect the drop-in centre.

      “It was a place of support,” says Gabrielle Martin, the LMBIA’s executive director. “It was a place to learn skills and was an opportunity to socialize. It was a home away from home.

      “A brain injury is a very isolating injury,” she adds. “It’s an invisible injury.”¦A person’s personality can change, their behaviour can change, and depression can set in. They might be withdrawn or quiet, or their concentration level isn’t there.”

      According to the LMBIA, acquired brain injuries can result from lack of oxygen, stroke, brain tumours, exposure to chemicals or drugs, or infections like meningitis. They can also occur because of traumatic incidents like car accidents, work accidents, falls, assaults, or sports injuries.

      The effects of acquired brain injuries can vary from mild to severe. People can experience cognitive impairment (trouble with memory, judgment, decision-making, and communication); physical problems (visual deficits, dizziness, sensitivity to sound or light, trouble with coordination or balance); or affective changes, such as irritability, anger, and mood swings.

      Treatment varies, depending on the injury, but it usually incorporates cognitive, behavioural, vocational, educational, and recreational aspects. According to the Brain Injury Association of Canada, some provinces have a “continuum of services” through which patients receive care at a hospital, at a rehabilitation centre, at home, and then via community programs. Family members and friends take on a huge role providing support and assistance, which in some cases is required 24 hours a day.

      About 14,000 British Columbians acquire new brain injuries each year, according to the B.C. Brain Injury Association. Such injuries are the leading cause of death and disability among children.

      Ways of preventing brain injuries are all too often overlooked, the LMBIA’s Martin says.

      “There’s a large population that’s exposed to athletic causes of brain injury: wrestling, soccer, hockey, anything where there are hits to the head. If it’s repeated, it can do significant long-term damage.

      “Kids are doing more extreme sports: skateboarding, skiing with jumps, BMX biking,” she adds. “Prevention and safety need to be far more reinforced.”

      Several organizations have suggestions on how to reduce the likelihood of acquired brain injury.

      SMARTRISK, a national nonprofit group, has tips on safe winter driving. These include installing four matching winter tires and watching for black ice, particularly on shaded areas of roads, bridges, and overpasses when the temperature is between –4 ° C and 4 ° C.

      The Brain Injury Association of Canada is pushing for the passage of Bill C-412, which would prohibit the sale of winter sports helmets in Canada that don’t meet the latest Canadian Standards Association criteria.

      The American College of Emergency Physicians recently released guidelines for staying safe during the winter. Among its suggestions: wear a helmet snowboarding, skiing, or snowmobiling, and make sure kids under 12 wear a helmet for those activities, as well as for skating and tubing. Never go sledding or tubing headfirst. And make sure your sporting equipment fits properly.

      Meanwhile, Johnson is hoping the LMBIA’s drop-in centre will soon find a new home—and new funds—so that he can reconnect with his friends and shoot a little pool.

      “With the centre closing,” he says, “it’s kind of like the family’s been broken up.”