People often ask what inspired me and my co-author, sportswriter David Rosner, to write our book, The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic (Simon & Schuster, 2011).
It started when we began to look at traumatic brain injuries in soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. So many of them were returning home with badly wounded brains that TBI (traumatic brain injury) had been dubbed “the signature wound of the war.” When we sought experts to enlighten us on the science of what was happening in the brain, they quickly made it clear that while the war was spotlighting the issue of brain injury in soldiers, there was, on the home front, an unseen burgeoning epidemic.
We learned that millions of Americans were living with permanent disabilities from head traumas resulting from all sorts of accidents. Even fender benders could sometimes derail a life. We learned that even so-called “mild” brain injuries could be disabling.
Scarier to us was what was happening on the nation’s playing fields. Research had shown that as many as 3.8 million children were sustaining sports-related concussions each year—many of which were undiagnosed and untreated. Kids’ academic careers were being derailed by the cumulative effect of repeated concussions. Some were even dying when concussions were ignored or improperly managed.
The most amazing part was that this was all going on unseen by most Americans—including us. As a reporter who had been covering health for almost 20 years, I was stunned to discover the breadth of a public health crisis that I’d essentially heard nothing about.
Beyond the numbers were the people we met who seemed so normal at first, before all their deficits became clear. An initial conversation with a brain injury survivor would go along like any other. But if you spent enough time to get to know the person better, you’d start seeing subtle deficits—memory problems, attention difficulties, organizational issues—that would make life so very difficult.
It’s one thing to have occasional memory problems, quite another to have to map out your entire day in 15-minute increments on Post-it notes. Some researchers have described people with brain injuries as “the walking wounded.” And we began to understand why.
When we found out that athletes—kids and adults alike—with multiple concussions were ending up with brain damage that was similar to what was experienced by people who had survived car wrecks with severe head trauma, we felt it was important to sound an alarm and to inform Americans about this unrecognized menace. The Concussion Crisis details the current science and features stories of people who are struggling every day with the damage to their brains. Our hope is that it will help educate and change attitudes towards all brain injuries—and maybe help keep our sports-playing kids safer.
Linda Carroll ’78 has written for The New York Times and Health, among other publications, and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com and TODAY.com.