Alaska, No. 1 for brain injuries

According to the Alaska Brain Injury Network, or ABIN, Alaska ranks No. 1 in the nation for recorded brain injuries but lacks proper treatment or rehabilitation services for those affected. Many Alaskans experiencing brain injuries go without proper diagnosis and treatment or are transported out of state for rehabilitation.

“Traumatic brain injury is one of the most misunderstood and unrecognized medical issue in Alaska because it’s an ‘invisible disease,’” said ABIN executive director Brenda Bogowith.

A traumatic brain injury can happen in an instant to anyone, anywhere. Because slips and falls are one of the largest causes of brain injuries in Alaska, it’s important to prevent falling, but if that’s not an option, learn to fall properly. If a person experiences one of these circumstances, ABIN advises he or she to see a physician immediately in order to record the accident, because brain injury symptoms may not appear until years after the initial trauma.

There are three different forms of traumatic brain injuries, or TBI: mild, traumatic and severe. The trauma registry estimates there about 10,000 Alaskans experiencing brain injuries, but there are only about 600-800 recorded hospitalizations per year.

Indicators of brain injuries can include an initial stage of dizziness, memory loss and nausea, which happen immediately following the preliminary injury. The second most common symptoms are behavioral symptoms such as frustration, anger and irritability. Thirdly, hypersensitivity to light, sound and vision can be affected.

Wearing a helmet while playing sports or riding bikes can also help prevent brain injuries.

ABIN resource navigator Jenny Di Grappa said helmets must be engineered for the specific activity in which one participates. A helmet must be properly fitted to one’s head and properly buckled in order to be effective.

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Di Grappa said the most frequent causes of brain injuries in Alaska can be attributed to slips, falls and accidents involving motorized vehicles, such as ATVs and automobiles. Winter weather and overconsumption of alcohol are often factors in these circumstances. Brain injuries in Alaska are more frequent in rural areas than urban centers.

Despite the frequency of brain injuries in Alaska, there are no short- or long-term treatment facilities in the state, and many of those injured are sent home without being properly diagnosed. If a diagnosis is made, most Alaskans are sent home to families or sent to out-of-state facilities via medevac. Di Grappa is currently working with a family whose medevac to a Colorado facility cost $75,000, and that’s just in transportation costs.

“Our state needs to come together and collectively work towards education and awareness surrounding TBI,” Bogowith said.

Bogowith would like the state to develop a task force that would connect TBI survivors, their families, medical health providers and behavioral health professionals — anyone who may come in contact with a survivor. Bogowith says the state needs to develop a comprehensive system of community-based services.

There is a wide range of symptoms for brain injures. These include cognitive issues such as remembering and reasoning, changes in physical abilities such as walking and coordination, changes in sensation such as touch, taste and smell, behavioral changes leading to aggression and anxiety, and psychosocial changes, which can include depression, sense of loss and dependency on drugs and alcohol.

Di Grappa, experienced a brain injury 10 years ago when she was involved in a car accident in Fairbanks. Di Grappa was transported to the local hospital but, like a large number of Alaskans, was not properly diagnosed with a brain injury.

Di Grappa was not diagnosed for several months but began noticing changes, such as failing college exams. Her neighbor, who was a neuropsychologist, also noticed these changes and encouraged her to seek a diagnosis. Once she was properly diagnosed, she was told she would experience symptoms such as dyslexia and ADD for up to 10 years, but she is still experiencing them to this day.

Bogowith suspects many Alaskans are suffering from mild TBIs without knowing it and are going without treatment, rehab services or support. Bogowith said many people experiencing an injury, are often diagnosed with mental health issues, and only the symptoms are being treated, not the cause.

ABIN is the only agency within the state of Alaska that works with people who have experienced a brain injury. ABIN connects survivors with the resources that do exist in Alaska, and advocates for more comprehensive services within the state.