Our Hospital, Our StoriesFrom Doctor to Patient to Advocate

Posted on: Jun 13, 2016

Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation Director is Raising Awareness for Brain Injuries

June is Brain Injury Awareness month, a month long event that hopes to draw attention to the real faces and facts of brain injuries. Traumatic or acquired brain injuries know no bounds and can affect anyone at any time. According to Brain Injury Canada, over a million Canadians live with the effects of an acquired brain injury.

“Brain injuries are a lot more common than people believe,” says Dr. Garnet Cummings. “And to live with a moderate to severe brain injury has great impact on not only the person with the injury, but everyone around them – family, friends, caregivers, co-workers – it will change things for life.”

Dr. Cummings is the Executive Director of the Brain Care Centre, a non-profit organization offering programs and services to adults who have acquired a brain injury. A former Chief of the Emergency Department at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and a current Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation Director, Dr. Cummings has firsthand experience with brain injuries due to a serious car accident in August 1998. Dr. Cummings' injury meant the end of his practicing medical career but led to a new calling assisting those with brain injuries and advocating for more awareness, prevention, and treatment options.

Traumatic brain injury is sudden physical damage to the brain, such as an object coming into violent contact with the head, or by something passing through the skull and piercing the brain. The major cause of head trauma is motor vehicle accidents; other causes include falls, sports injuries, and child abuse. An acquired brain injury is caused by an event that occurs with the skull or brain, such as a stroke, aneurism, or a brain tumor.

The effects of a brain injury are complex: often they are physical and visible such as speech difficulties and impaired motor skills, but more often than not, brain traumas cause invisible injuries which lead to serious mental and emotional issues.

Diagnosing and treating brain injuries can be a great challenge. Like the tip of an iceberg, the damages caused by a brain injury aren’t always fully realized by the patient, their families, and their healthcare providers.

“Brain injuries are a lot more common than people believe. And to live with a moderate to severe brain injury has great impact on not only the person with the injury, but everyone around them – it will change things for life.”

“If someone suffers a serious concussion in an accident and comes back with an abnormal brain scan, they will be sent to a neurologist for expert care,” explains Dr. Cummings. “However, with the vast majority of trauma, a patient’s CAT scans or MRI will show up as normal. The injury is at a microvascular level, so the damage can’t be detected.”

“However, there is new medical technology – 3T MRI imaging – that can now detect things at the microvascular level. But at the moment, unlike a CT scan of your heart that will show a blocked artery after a heart attack, there is no easy medical test that will accurately detect a brain injury.”

Symptoms of a brain injury can differ greatly, but there are some common signs to be aware of.

“Generally, the first symptom of a brain injury is a slower thought process,” explains Dr. Cummings. “It’s an inability to quickly process information, such as simple instructions or how something works. These symptoms can last a week or two. About 85% of victims will improve and feel better within three weeks and not be at risk for an acquired brain injury. But if those symptoms continue, then there is certainly cause for concern.”

Often, people who suffer a concussion or other trauma will feel that they have recovered and start to push themselves both mentally and physically in an effort to prove that they are back to normal. Dr. Cummings warns that both physical and mental rest are very important in the recovery process.

“I’ve seen this happen with busy people, academics, or athletes where they attempt to get back to their normal lives too soon after an injury. In this case, the symptoms will persist for a number of weeks or even a year and can lead to serious consequences.”

Because each case of brain injury is unique, the road to recovery can be long and involves small steps that will lead to larger improvements. While some people will return to normal, most will have to adjust to a new definition of normal for their lives and the lives of their families after a brain injury.

“It’s important for people to know that there is help available. Treating a brain injury isn’t easy, but more than ever, there are resources available and people who can offer assistance.”