School of Medicine & Health Sciences researcher: TBI matters

N.D. Brain Injury Network director Rebecca Quinn says awareness increasing but still much to be learned

Rebecca Quinn

Rebecca Quinn holds a model of a human brain in her office at the UND Center for Rural Health, part of the School of Medicine & Health Sciences. Quinn, a social worker who manages the North Dakota Brain Injury Network, is an advocate for the prevention of traumatic brain injuries. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, is as serious as it sounds.

“These injuries happen much more often than we think,” said Rebecca Quinn, a social worker who manages the North Dakota Brain Injury Network at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences-based Center for Rural Health.

The Network provides outreach, education and support for persons with brain injury across the state, and recently received a one-year grant from the Department of Human Services to help with these efforts. Quinn also collects data and does research that highlights the problem.

The good news — if there’s any in this subject area — is that awareness has increased over the last decade, notes Quinn, who also is program director for the North Dakota Behavioral Health Epidemiological Profile.

“That’s partly due to veterans returning home with TBI, as well as headlines about sports figures with TBI history,” she said.

Misconceptions

However, Quinn notes, TBI still is misunderstood—and often misdiagnosed or overlooked. So awareness is still a major challenge for folks such as Quinn, who are passionate advocates for more widespread knowledge about TBI. In North Dakota alone, the organization’s web site documents, about 3,700 people sustain a traumatic brain injury; of those, about 110 die, about 600 are admitted to a hospital, close to 3000 are treated in ER, and about 13,000 North Dakotans live with a TBI-related long-term disability.

The Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines TBI as caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain (though not all such blows or hits result in a TBI). Mild TBIs are often described as concussions.

The biggest misconception about TBI is that a brain injury is a single point in time with a quick recovery, observes Quinn, a Texas native with a long history in the healthcare sector.

“Many people think that recovery from TBI means you’re back to normal,” she said. “But recovery from TBI is often an up-and-down rollercoaster ride. It can be a long process often without any outward physical signs but with definite impairments that the individual struggles with daily. One can see a broken leg, but brain injuries are not necessarily observable.”

No magic wand

Bottom line in TBI: there is no magic wand, no miracle treatment; one size does not fit all. Each brain is unique and responds differently to a similar injury, Quinn says.

Another key challenge: the long-term results of brain injury are not known. Research suggests that such injuries may impact other long-term degenerative conditions, such as Parkinson’s, degenerative dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS).

However it happens and whether it’s mild or nasty, “it’s not good to injure your brain,” Quinn says. “And the more frequently the brain is injured, the more possibilities for complications and problems in the future.”

Because ND has a small population for its geographical area, it is challenging to find services and skilled providers for TBI patients. Specialized services are usually located in larger hubs, limiting access for the mostly rural populace. There is one skilled nursing facility, located in Mandan, and two group homes (located in Mandan and Valley City) for TBI patients.

By Debra Sorvig Pedraza, UND Division of Research & Economic Development