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Resilience and the Brain: Healing from Traumatic Brain Injury

Every year, there are roughly 1.7 million people who experience a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the U.S. Another estimated 5.3 million Americans live with a disability caused by TBI. But for Russell Erickson, these numbers are much more than statistics.

This March, in honor of Brain Injury Awareness Month, Russell and all survivors of TBI, we are sharing his story and one reason that may have led to his recovery.

What is a Traumatic Brain Injury?

A TBI is an injury to the brain caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head. It disrupts the normal function of the brain. Fortunately, not all bumps result in a TBI, and some may be more severe than others. A mild concussion is a form of TBI. Severe injuries, like Russell’s, call for extensive rehabilitation and treatment.

“I had a traumatic brain injury,” Russell clearly states. “The brain bleed was the worst part of my injuries.”

His injury was severe enough that it required him to spend four days on life support.

David Burke, MD, MA, brain rehabilitation specialist at Emory Healthcare, was Russell’s physician and explains the extent of his injuries.

“He had blunt trauma from someone striking his head repeatedly with a blunt object,” Dr. Burke says. “That caused bruising and bleeding in the brain and swelling of the brain.”

The bruising and swelling in the brain is what ultimately causes damage to brain tissue. When blunt force trauma occurs, the movement can permanently tear and damage fibers in the brain. As the brain works to heal, swelling occurs. That swelling can cut off the oxygen supply to parts of the brain.

“Swelling can suffocate parts of the brain in the early stages of recovery,” explains Dr. Burke. “Simply, it squeezes the life out of the brain tissue.”

Parts of the brain can die from a TBI, but researchers and providers are gaining a better understanding of the regenerative capacity of the brain.

Treating Traumatic Brain Injury

A TBI can cause a wide range of issues, challenges and even disabilities – from paralysis to speech difficulties. In Russell’s case, he didn’t lose function of his limbs, but he did experience issues with:

  • Attention
  • Sleep
  • Severe vertigo
  • Memory
  • Speech

Fortunately for Russell – and many who experience a TBI – there are ways to help encourage healing. That typically starts with medication to help control or address symptoms caused by the damage to the brain.

Individuals with TBI may be prescribed medication to help manage, treat or regulate:

  • Attention issues
  • Sleep cycles
  • Debilitating headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Depression
  • Thinking that feels slower

“Medications support the brain and the person and make intense physical and cognitive rehabilitation more effective,” states Dr. Burke.

Rehabilitation helps retrain or reorganize the brain to, hopefully, make everyday tasks a little easier. Therapy may include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Vestibular therapy

Resilience in Recovery

Another key determinant in recovery sometimes comes down to something you can’t see in an imaging scan or test result. It is resilience and the willingness to focus on the positive to overcome a negative situation.

“The more you attempt to work on what has been damaged, the more likely the brain will reorganize,” Dr. Burke says. “In Russell’s case, he was the most motivated guy you will meet.”

One simple way Russell stays grounded is with gratitude stones.

“I have a little stone that I put in my pocket and every time I touch it, I think of something to be grateful for,” he shares.

Dr. Burke encourages all his patients to adopt such a positive outlook.

“One thing I think is critical is that people stop looking in the rearview mirror and, instead, look ahead,” he says. “You can’t move ahead if you’re always looking at what was lost instead of what you can gain.”

Emory Rehabilitation for Brain Injuries

We understand the complicated needs of patients during this recovery process and have a dedicated group of physicians and therapists focusing exclusively on rehabilitation following a severe brain injury. To learn more about brain injury rehabilitation at Emory, call 404-778-7777 or click the link below.

About Your Fantastic Mind

Emory University and the Emory Brain Health Center have partnered with Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) on a television series, “Your Fantastic Mind,” which features compelling stories on brain-related health and wellness.

“Your Fantastic Mind” began airing Season 2 in September 2020 on GPB’s statewide television network. The Emmy-winning news magazine-style show highlights patient stories and reports on cutting-edge science and clinical advances in neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, sleep medicine and rehabilitation medicine.

For a complete listing of Season 2 episode air dates and times, visit emoryhealthcare.org/yfm.

Season 1 of “Your Fantastic Mind” examined topics including sleep apnea, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, PTSD, Huntington’s disease, migraines and video gaming disorder, which has been designated a mental health disorder by the World Health Organization.

Jaye Watson is the show’s host, writer and executive producer. She is an Emmy- and Edward R. Murrow award-winning veteran Atlanta journalist and video producer for the Emory Brain Health Center.

Emory Brain Health Center

The Emory Brain Health Center uniquely integrates neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, rehabilitation medicine and sleep medicine and transforms patient-centered care for brain and spinal cord conditions through research and discovery.

Bringing these specialties together allows more than 400 researchers and clinicians from different areas to collaborate to predict, prevent, treat or cure devastating diseases and disorders of the brain more rapidly. These collaborations are demonstrated in numerous centers and programs across the Brain Health Center, including the Epilepsy Center, Pituitary Center, Stroke Center, Treatment-Resistant Depression Program and Veterans Program.

Emory’s multidisciplinary approach is transforming the world’s understanding of the vast frontiers of the brain, harnessing imagination and discovery to address 21st century challenges.

Learn more about comprehensive, diagnostic and innovative treatment options at the Emory Brain Health Center.

Emory Brain Health Center
Emory Brain Health Center
The Emory Brain Health Center uniquely integrates neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, rehabilitation medicine, and sleep medicine, and transforms patient-centered care for brain and spinal cord conditions through research and discovery.


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