Just this past weekend the world received another lesson on the harsh realities of brain injury when seven time Formula One racing champion Michael Schumacher required emergency brain surgery after experiencing a fall while skiing at a resort in the French Alps. It is reported that Michael fell striking the right side of his head on a rock while skiing with his 14 year old son just after 11:00 am on Sunday afternoon. One report indicated that an emergency helicopter arrived at the scene of the accident within 10 minutes of the incident, and at that point Mr. Schumacher appeared to be conscious and alert. Witnesses initially responding to the incident reported that he was unconscious for about a minute. Within minutes though, his medical condition became worse and within two hours he made two hospital stops. According to one of Mr. Schumacher’s attending physicians, the fact that he was wearing a safety helmet protected him from more serious injuries.
Mr. Schumacher’s accident comes a little more than three months from the 5th anniversary of actress Natasha Richardson’s March 2009 death from a fall at a beginners ski slope at a Canadian resort. In both incidents each skier appeared to recover consciousness yet within an hour succumbed to the silent residuals of Epidural Hematoma’s (blood build-ups between the skull and the brain). In some cases the after effects of subdural type hematomas may take longer to appear, as in the case of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. In August of this year the 60 year old South American leader was reported to have a clear brain scan after an undisclosed fall. In early October, Ms. Fernandez was experiencing severe headaches and an irregular heartbeat. A second brain scan revealed a Sub-epidural Hematoma which led to emergency surgery to address the previously unrecognized brain bleeding issue.
I often wonder why it takes brain injury situations from high profile athletes, politicians and celebrities to get our attention. In the US alone 1.7 million people experience a traumatic brain injury every year. Over one-third of these reported injuries are due to falls. Notice each one of the high profile cases mentioned here occurred outside of the borders of the United States. So the magnitude of the problems of this “silent” epidemic is greatly underestimated. Also, awareness goes beyond the first few minutes after a probable brain injury event. Even the sophisticated technological advances in brain injury can be fooled by the silent and subtle nature of a fall. When will it be time for brain injury awareness training to have a focus similar to CPR training for heart disease? After all, it currently occurs roughly one million more times annually than a heart attack in the United States alone.