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A New Approach To Brain Injury In Virginia

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, and it's likely that you know someone who's been affected by a brain injury. One in every 60 people in the U.S. lives with a disability resulting from a brain injury; and it is the leading cause of disability and death for kids and adolescents in the U.S. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Amanda Morris's son, James, was just one week old when he was diagnosed with meningitis. The disease caused a lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, in his brain, causing a permanent injury.

AMANDA MORRIS: He spent the first year of his life in and out of the hospital on oxygen. He has a medically documented traumatic brain injury.

Today, James is 14, and currently being homeschooled. Besides his high risk for severe illness due to COVID-19, his mom felt that public school wasn't able to provide the appropriate supports for his academic, emotional, and social needs – partly due to the red tape a child has to go through to qualify for special education services.

Credit Amanda Morris
Amanda Morris's son, James, was just one week old when he was diagnosed with meningitis.

MORRIS: I think the biggest surprise for us after he was diagnosed was the battle that we faced with the public education system. The current educational definition has contributed to James actually receiving multiple diagnoses from the school, I guess, under their categorization of trying to figure out where he belongs. And he's actually had multiple placements.

Morris has worked with Virginia delegate Tony Wilt, who represents Harrisonburg and most of Rockingham County, to advocate for legislative changes that would help her son get the support he needs. Wilt sponsored a house bill in January that amends the Board of Education's definition of a ‘traumatic brain injury’ to include [quote] ‘an acquired injury to the brain caused by a medical condition,’ such as hypoxia.

TONY WILT: When it came down to providing the additional educational needs for a student with a brain injury, some folks … they were being very pointed in their interpretation of the code – ‘here's the only way we can give them the additional help, is if they fit into these categories,’ and so the legislation this year helped expand that to include other forces, instead of just blunt force trauma.

Wilt has also worked on legislation that helps some adults with brain injuries.

Credit Tony Wilt
Republican Delegate Tony Wilt represents the 26th House district, which covers Harrisonburg and parts of Rockingham County.

WILT: An area that we've seen, you know, this really brought to the fore … is in the whole arena of folks that kind of get sideways with law enforcement … and so when we categorize and put everyone that has a perceived disability, if we lump them all together, then they kind of get treated all together. It's caused some concerns when it comes to dealing with those folks. So a big issue that we're all hearing about is keeping people out of incarceration and trying to avoid getting them into the legal system, if you will, especially when brain injury is involved.

Every brain injury is unique, and symptoms vary greatly depending on the cause, severity, and location of the injury, and the age of the affected person. But those symptoms commonly include cognitive, emotional, and communication issues that law enforcement officers may not know how to interact with.

WILT: And so that was one thing that I was happy to work with Cindy last year on, was a bill that included brain injury training for our crisis intervention teams … And so the gist of that is, when they get trained to go out and intervene with someone that's in a crisis situation, to give them the tools they need to be able to recognize an individual with a brain injury. Yeah, they might be acting out in a particular way, but there's a reason.

Cindy Noftsinger is the executive director of the organization Brain Injury Connections of the Shenandoah Valley. In addition to advocacy and outreach, they offer case management services, life skills training, and pediatric and adult support groups.

Credit Cindy Noftsinger
Cindy Noftsinger is the executive director of the organization Brain Injury Connections of the Shenandoah Valley.

CINDY NOFTSINGER: Our primary service is case management. Our case managers provide support to our clients including assistance with employment and education, daily living and personal care, housing, help with their finances, help with their healthcare and connecting them to healthcare providers and mental health counseling, and so much more, really.

She said that falls are a common cause of brain injury for both toddlers and older adults. Other common causes include car accidents, sports injuries, and assaults.

NOFTSINGER: Brain injuries are invisible injuries. You know, externally, you cannot see the damage that's inside the brain. And also, we have a common thing that we say around our shop, and that's, no two brain injuries are the same, kind of like fingerprints. Two people can have a diagnosed concussion, but the consequences from that concussion can look very different depending on where they received that concussion.

While the causes and effects of brain injuries are innumerable, Noftsinger's goal is simple.

NOFTSINGER: To meet the needs of the individuals that we serve who are brain injured, whether they are pediatric, geriatric, veterans, homeless, other adults with brain injuries, just so they can maximize their independence in our local communities.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.