You Break it, You've Bought It

Bill Johnson just wanted to get his life back on track. After the tremendous high of winning Olympic Gold in the Downhill at Sarajevo, his personal life became a mess. He decided to go back to the beginning, back to the place where he'd felt successful- going maniacally fast on snow. In 2000, at the age of 41, he returned to competitive skiing.

At Big Mountain near Whitefish, forerunning his first race, he crashed. As Bill describes it, "I was trying to make the 2002 Olympics. And then I fell down. It was just kind of bad that I fell, because I broke my head good. It's amazing that I'm still alive." Now he lives with his mom, walks crookedly, talks funny, and has trouble remembering simple things. Ironically, he has once again achieved a measure of success; this time as a spokesperson and fund-raiser for the Brain Injury Association of America.

Every year in the U.S., 50,000 people die of brain injury- more than die of breast cancer, more than die of AIDS. I hear what you're thinking; "Live fast, die young. Doing what you love is not the worst way to go."

But what if you don't die? What if you're lucky, like Bill? He's one of the five million Americans who live with permanent disability from brain injury. Some live in nursing homes; others can't walk or use their hands properly; some have seizures; others have difficulty thinking or remembering; many can't perform meaningful work. The world responds to them differently, their relationships are drastically altered, and their independence is at risk.

According to the Brain Injury Association of America, "Brain injury affects who we are, the way we think, act, and feel. It can change everything about us in a matter of seconds."

Sadly, 80,000 more Americans will have their lives altered by brain injury this year.

Even minor injuries can lead to significant temporary loss of brain function. When a concussed person repeats the same, "Is my dog OK?" question every 30 seconds, the first four or five times can seem comical, but after 30 repetitions, you get the idea that his brain cells are pretty scrambled. In subtle ways, that scrambling can affect thinking, especially in the demanding arenas of school and work, for up to three months. There can be cumulative effects from repeated minor head injuries, as well. Most of us remember laughing at the "I'm Batman!" commercial, but that football player had a significant concussion and, like Troy Aikman, may never be able to compete again.

I hear what the rest of you are thinking, too; "It won't happen to me." Other than elderly people who fall, the people at highest risk for head injury are males from 15-30. Montana had the highest incidence of traumatic brain injuries of any state in 2000, according to the Brain Injury Association of Montana. If we do the math, 15 or more MSU students will likely sustain a brain injury this year. So, why not you? What makes you so special?

Prevention is always better than treatment. When our ability to treat is meager and the consequences can be a disaster, as it is with head injury, prevention becomes crucial. Bike helmets can prevent 85% of brain injuries from cycling accidents. The same is likely to be true for other speed- and gravity-sensitive sports, like rock climbing, kayaking, and kite-skiing. Organized sports, such as high school football, require protective head gear. In your personal sports life, safety is an option; it's your choice. Bill recommends you choose to stay whole.

Brain Buckets. Get 'em and Wear 'em. Or you and your mom can become an inspiration, like Bill Johnson and his.

Dean Center, M.D., is a physician at Familr Doctors' Urgent Care in Bozeman, 556-9740