Bobby Renaud steps off his bike in Anchorage, Ala., after standing for hundreds of miles during a leg of his journey to promote awareness about traumatic brain injuries and the book from his friend, Steven Hirst. Hirst's book outlines the struggles of recovery and everyday life while dealing with TBI.
Pulled from www.upnorthhealth.com
The second leading cause of traumatic brain injuries -- just behind falls -- result from motor vehicle accidents. Even at relatively slow rates of speed, sudden jolts to the head can cause tearing or bruising as the brain collides with the inside of the skull.
Bobby Renaud makes a stop at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada in July as part of his tour to Anchorage, Ala. Renaud traveled to each of his friend, Steven Hirst's, stateside postings while in the U.S. Air Force.
Of growing concern among medical professionals worldwide is the prevailing incidence of severe head trauma and their lasting effects on their victims.
But the risk of head injuries, especially in contact sports, is nothing new, and Bobby Renaud should know.
A former football player for the Paducah Tilghman Tornado and the Air Force Academy Falcons, Renaud saw his fair share of hard hits, although it wasn’t until years later did the life-altering consequences of traumatic brain injuries truly hit home.
Today, Renaud — a retired Air Force major and A-10 Warthog pilot — is taking that experience on the road to promote awareness for the terrible affliction and the life story of his good friend, Steven Hirst, who survived the tragedy.
Hirst, also a retired Air Force major and F-15 Eagle fighter pilot, was involved in a car wreck while stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1998. After hitting a patch of black ice, Hirst’s vehicle crashed into a pole, leaving him in a coma for several weeks.
Upon waking, Hirst could only regain some of his motor skills and was told he would never use his legs again.
“Here he is, considered on top of the world. One of the best fighter pilots in the world, flying the top fighter 14 years ago by the top military force in the world, and now here he is, having to make his comeback after they said he’d never walk again,” Renaud said.
Nearly a decade and a half later, Renaud said his friend struggles with being trapped in a body that can’t respond, but every day that passes Hirst tries to better himself in some way, prompting his ambitious goal to chronicle his recovery amidst TBI.
With the recent release of Hirst’s book — Still Standing: Accidental Life Lessons — Renaud took Hirst’s story across the country.
“He’s gone through the depression, the loss, the denial,” Renaud said. “His kids initially didn’t understand it and they blamed their father for being hurt, so there’s a lot of stories in this book that will help not just people that have had TBI, but people that are dealing with it in their families. They can see that ‘yeah,’ it’s okay to be just a little off.”
Renaud is traveling the country on his Can-Am motorcycle to spread the word, but he’s going about it in a unique way: He’s standing the entire way to promote awareness for his friend’s ailment.
“There were a couple of times that I wanted to quit, but I kept thinking, Steve doesn’t get to get out of that chair, he doesn’t get that choice, so I thought I wanted to suffer as much as I could on this trip to show my solidarity with him,” Renaud said.
Anatomy of a brain injury
Dr. Allan Gocio, neurosurgeon at Lourdes hospital, explained that TBI is a wide-encompassing injury crossing a range of severity.
“Anything ranging from the concussion on one end of the spectrum, to the very severe disruptions of brain tissue that lead to tears and swelling of tissue,” Gocio said.
“The bulk of the public becomes aware of those injuries that are not fatal, those that might seem relatively mild in that the patient recovers a lot of function, but the patient may have severe disturbance of their emotional stability and ability to perform higher leveled brain functions. They can be very disrupting kinds of injuries.”
The incidence of sports-related TBIs has grown immeasurably over recent years as numerous athletes began stepping forward with ill-effects of hard hits to the head and a general lack of understanding about the disorder.
“You can go from getting your bell rung to not being able to function at work, so it’s an injury that in years past was considered very minor and nothing to worry about,” Gocio said.
“But we’re starting to understand that there’s a kind of additive effect on these injuries.”
But when reviewing nation-wide statistics, the scope of the affliction can become painfully clear.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States are diagnosed with some form of traumatic brain injury. Falls account for the leading cause of TBI, and are attributed to half of such injuries among children 0-4 years old and 61 percent of such injuries among adults 65 and older.
Motor vehicle wrecks remain the second leading cause of TBIs, but resulted in the largest number of TBI-related deaths (31.8%). Nearly 30.5 percent of all injury-related deaths in the nation are directly attributed to TBI.
“These injuries are very much related to the velocity of the injury,” Gocio said. “You’ll obviously see more serious injuries when you’re dealing with higher velocities and usually injury occurs with a velocity greater than 15-20 miles per hour.”
An ounce of prevention
Though aside from wearing a seatbelt, little can be done for preventing head injuries during a car wreck, people can take steps in avoiding such injuries in sports and recreation.
Wearing proper headgear for any sport or recreational activity is vitally necessary and adhering to stringent post-concussion rules help decrease the risk of TBI.
Any head injury that results in loss of consciousness for even a brief time coupled with symptoms of confusion, disorientation, agitation, sleepiness, difficulty awakening, severe headache and uncontrolled vomiting are warning signs that should be immediately evaluated in the emergency room, Gocio said.
“Fortunately many times everything is negative — a brief stay in the hospital or care at home and things are okay — but especially in the younger age group, these seemingly mild injuries could be a life threatening case,” Gocio said.
With the release of Hirst’s book, Renaud has revived his commitment to get the word out and has continued in his quest to visit each of Hirst’s stateside postings, from the Academy at Colorado Springs, Colo., to Williams Air Force Base in Phoenix, Ariz., and further.
On Sept. 26, Renaud planned on concluding the final leg of his standing trek to the very site of Hirst’s accident in Alaska. There Renaud plans to hold a brief ceremony in honor of his friend and his perseverance despite all he has gone through.
“One of the last lines of the book, (Hirst) writes: I’m still standing, I’m flying in my mind,” Renaud said. “He’ll never fly again as a pilot, but he is out there showing people his courage, his perseverance, his heart and everything that he does is to get better.”
Call Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.