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Fighting the “silent epidemic”

Local organization lookos to raise awareness around the plight of brain injuries

Linda Lowery and her husband Ted Dionne started Heads Up! Durham in 2015 in order to try and inform Durham Region about the dangers of brain injury. In 2009, her 22-year-old son was struck by a van while riding his longboard in Peterborough. He suffered a serious head injury from the accident and required months of physiotherapy in order to fully recover. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel).

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

It started eight years ago with a phone call; a phone call that no parent ever wants to receive.

For Linda Lowery and her husband Ted, the call came late at night on Oct. 16, 2008. Picking up the braying telephone, the couple learned that their only son had been seriously injured.

Garrett, a fourth-year student at Trent University had been riding his longboard with some friends when he was struck from behind by a van and thrown almost 50-feet in the air.

He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Originally, he was rushed to Peterborough hospital, but was later air-lifted to St. Michael’s in Toronto where he would spend 48 days in the ICU with a catastrophic brain injury.

“They prepared us for the fact that we might lose him,” Linda says.

hankfully, the 22-year-old pulled through, and in January 2009, he was transferred into community rehabilitation. However, the fight didn’t end there. What followed were five and a half years of intense rehab and recovery. Linda made it her number one priority and eventually quit her job in order to help her son along.

When they came out the other side and things started to improve, Linda began to turn her mind elsewhere, and to others in Durham Region who have, or could quite possibly experience, a brain injury.

“During that period, Ted and I realized that Garrett was going to live and he was continuing to improve, we started to think about what we could do to hopefully shine a light on brain injury because there wasn’t much happening with respect to it, definitely not in Durham.”

The end result was Heads Up! Durham,

It’s a bit of a paradox, it may be out of sight, but the brain can never really be out of mind, can it?

Brain injuries are definitely not something that is top of mind for most people, but the plight has been labelled as the “silent epidemic” and are in fact a lot more common than many people believe.

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are 15 times more common than spinal cord injuries, 30 times more common than brain cancer and 400 times more common than HIV/AIDS, according to numbers from the Ontario Brain Injury Association.

And they’re much more common in youth as acquired brain injury is the leading cause of death and disability for Canadians under the age of 45, and it’s estimated there are half a million people living with a brain injury in Ontario alone and approximately 18,000 new cases annually.

For that reason, in 2015 Linda and Ted started Heads Up! Durham, an organization that looks to raise awareness around brain injuries and make sure that people are thinking about not just the dangers, but the long-term repercussions and, perhaps most importantly, how to prevent them.

With help from the Brain Injury Association of Durham, Linda and Ted started to spread the word in the community, and began to realize how important such an initiative was going to be in the future.

“Typically everyone was either saying that they knew somebody who suffered a brain injury, or it was an issue with their staff, or there was some kind of heart connection you can call it, to bring people in,” Linda says.

With that, the awareness began to spread, partners began to come on board, and in 2016, the organization presented to two municipal councils (Clarington and Ajax). In 2017, that number grew to five, and in Oshawa, the month of June has been proclaimed as Brain Injury Awareness Month.

“You can’t move on to prevention if people aren’t aware it’s an issue,” Linda says.

A broad scope

Sports are a big contributor to brain injuries, especially when it comes to concussions, and with the recent media attention to the plight of star NHLers like Sidney Crosby suffering concussions, Linda says it has brought the issue of brain injuries to the forefront, but many people are only focusing on that aspect, and that needs to change.

“I think part of the awareness is just taking the blinders off of people and helping them to recognize that there’s a lot of things that contribute and sports, contact sports, is just one,” she says.

And, it’s actually not the sports you might think. While hockey and rugby may be the most common for causing hospital visits for brain injuries, other sports, like equestrian riding and basketball are higher on the list of dangers.

And sports are not the only culprit, as falls in the senior population are a serious concern along with cycling, skateboarding and snowboarding.

It’s this fact and the common nature of brain injuries that Heads Up! Durham is looking to highlight, along with the ramifications of what a person can do to their brain if they don’t take precautions.

The word has spread fast, and Linda says the community has begun to mobilize around the organization whether that’s through the Brain Injury Association or other partners in the Durham health department, the police, or the Ministry of Transportation, who has expressed interest in a partnership with Heads Up! Durham.

“It doesn’t belong to any one organization and it doesn’t belong to the Brain Injury Association or the police or the health department, it belongs to Durham Region,” Linda says. “So it’s a way of mobilizing a community to recognize that there’s an issue and that we all own the issue and own the solution.”

It’s a method that Linda is quite familiar with, having started the organization Racing Against Drugs Durham (RADD), which over the last 20 years has helped educate over 6,500 elementary school students about the dangers of drugs and substance abuse.

With Heads Up! Durhan, the organization has a series of concentrated efforts to get information into the hands of the community, including handing out information cards to commuters at the GO station.

Starting at home

As mentioned, youth are of particular concern, and in Durham Region, with teens aged 14 to 19 accounting for the most concussion-related emergency room visits. More concerning, the number of ER visits due to concussions has been steadily increasing in Durham since 2008.

And while Heads Up! Durham has spread a wide net with their efforts, Linda says that people can start awareness at home, through leading by example.

“When I see young people out and they’ve got their helmet on, but mom or dad or big brother doesn’t, that really concerns me. Young people always like to be like the older people, so to be older and mature and be like mom or dad or be like big brother, you don’t wear a helmet, that’s the message they’re getting,” Linda says.  “It has to be in the realm of just sharing with one another and recognize that this is a huge issue. If you want your child to be safe and wear a helmet, set a good example.”

For more information on Heads Up! Durham, visit their website at www.headsupdurham.ca