Posted: November 4, 2015 at 6:41 pm

By Katelyn Amato, Mike Marsh and Hanna Traynham

MORGANTOWN — In West Virginia, there are 22,000 new traumatic brain injury cases every year. After sustaining a brain injury, the survivors and their families face many difficult situations, changes, and unknowns that come along with recovering from something they may know very little about.

The West Virginia Traumatic Brain Injury (WV TBI) Program helps individuals of all ages who sustain head injuries that disrupt brain function learn about what resources are available to them. The program also provides a range of support services for families and caregivers seeking assistance for their loved ones.

“We provide more of a social service aspect. We don’t have a medical staff,” explained Dottie Hicks, a resource coordinator at the WV TBI Program. “It’s for the families and the survivors of traumatic brain injury because a lot of times the families are the caregivers for the TBI.”

The social service-oriented program helps with the whole spectrum of traumatic brain injuries, which can be anything from a mild concussion to someone who needs 24 hour personal care. They have support groups scattered throughout the state already, but are trying to add even more offices in the rural parts of West Virginia. This has proved to be a challenge due to the lack of public transportation.

“We have support groups across the state. They meet in four or five different locations right now and we’d like to get more up and running; it just depends on the population,” said Hicks. “Right now they’re in Charleston, Morgantown, Parkersburg, Beckley and Martinsburg. We’re trying to get more set up in populated areas. Public transportation isn’t always available in rural areas, which makes up 80 percent of West Virginia.”

The WV TBI program is a state and federally funded agency that works through a referral system. When someone suffers a TBI, the injured person or caregiver contacts the closest center, at which point a resource coordinator is assigned who can supply the different services available.

For people who are interested in what the WV TBI program offers, resource coordinators will meet with them at their homes and explain the services available to them in their area. The resource coordinators assist those who sought help from the program with things ranging from locating the closest support groups or making sure needs are met from social services. A lot of the time those seeking with help from the WV TBI Program aren’t aware of all the resources available at their fingertips.

One of the services the WV TBI Program provides is called “Funds for You.” This program helps those who have suffered TBIs by paying for medication, providing a wheelchair, or anything else they may need help with funding after suffering a brain injury. Each client can receive up to $1,500 a year to help with expenses not covered by insurance plans.

“Recently we helped provide a new bathroom floor for someone who had a plumbing issue because their bathroom floor was warped, whenever they went to get in and out of the tub it was a dangerous situation because of their balance,” said Hicks. “The $1,500 didn’t cover it, but it went a long way in helping.”

TBIs are considered a silent epidemic because it is not always obvious when someone has a brain injury compared to other ailments that are more visible. Those dealing with TBIs can be reluctant to talk about their injury or discuss anything that has such a major effect on their cognitive function.

“When you see someone walking with a guide dog, or you see someone using a wheelchair you know automatically that there is something different, and that’s not a judgment, that’s just the way it is,” Hicks said. “With a TBI, you don’t know when you meet someone that they suffered the traumatic brain injury because the majority of the time there’s no outward appearance or no visual sign that they have a TBI.”

When someone suffers a TBI, the effects can be both immediate and long term. A mild concussion can produce memory loss immediately after the injury, yet normal brain function can be maintained for a few days to a few weeks. In more serious cases, the effects can last a lifetime, including migraine headaches, memory issues, and difficulties with problem solving or calculations.

After someone sustains a serious brain injury, there can be changes to aspects of their personality, their ability to cope with stress, and even basic learning and job skills. The interesting part, according to Hicks, is that the effects after sustaining a TBI are due to where exactly in the brain the person is hit and the severity of the impact to that area of the head.

“Different parts of the brain control different aspects of your bodily functions. Memory is in one section, coordination and muscle control is in another section. Breathing and involuntary reactions is in another section, that would of course be the most severe. It definitely depends where you get hit and how severe the blow is to that area,” Hicks said.

The behavioral changes resulting from a TBI can come in many different forms and can make the simplest daily tasks a challenge. Mundane chores become frustrating, which can lead to anger and problems with impulse control. TBI victims also often experience headaches, nausea and lack of sleep. In some cases, the inability to perform daily functions can result in anxiety and depression.

From an advocacy perspective, the WV TBI Program has statewide programs to help raise awareness about the dangers of brain injuries. This includes visits to nursing homes, schools and public events. The program in place at the State Fair of West Virginia has gained a lot of popularity over the last few years.

Every year the WV TBI Program has been going the state fair and handing out information about TBI’s to families. They also conduct a free raffle where donated bicycle helmets for kids and motorcycle helmets for adults are given away. The local Harley Davidson shop and motorsports shops around Morgantown are all very helpful with supplying the helmets for the raffle.

“They know every year we’re going to be doing that so they provide donations as an advocacy for brain safety, which is fantastic,” said Hicks.