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Brain Injury Recovery Prospects for Arizona Congresswoman Giffords

Updated on November 30, 2011

Arizona Congresswoman Giffords Was Not The First

Brain injury recovery prospects for Arizona Congresswoman Giffords is a matter of special interest to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, many of whom are themselves recovering from traumatic brain injuries, and the public spotlight of this tragic shooting may bring some needed attention to this problem, which will be discussed below. Arizona Congresswoman Giffords was active in the foreign affairs committees of the US congress and visited with troops in the battlegrounds. She was already well aware of the problem of traumatic brain injury before she was shot in the head. The prospects of brain injury recovery are discussed in this article.

The brain is divided into two lobes. The left lobe governs speech and sequential logical tasks, and the right is more concerned with nonverbal, creative and musical tasks
The brain is divided into two lobes. The left lobe governs speech and sequential logical tasks, and the right is more concerned with nonverbal, creative and musical tasks

Left Temporal Lobe Damage

When the assassin shot Arizona Congresswoman Giffords, the bullet went through the left lobe in the area near the temporal lobe, which is just about ear-high and above. Many immediately assumed that she was a gonner, but thanks to the sacrifices of the international troops, who have repeatedly faced explosions, and projectile injuries in the Afghan and Iraq wars, the doctors now have a pretty clear idea what to do to maximize brain injury recovery. She was quickly put under the knife, and they removed a portion of her skull so that the brain would not, when it swelled (like your ankle might swell if injured) be forced to thrust down upon the part of the brain that you need for basic life functions.

With the skull partially removed, there was primarily a concern about issues like infection. She likely will survive, and now she and the world turn to the kinds of questions that both veterans and their families have been grappling with: How will the damage effect the patient, what are the traumatic brain injury recovery prospects, and what can the patient do?

Brain Injury Recovery Depends In Part on the Location

The human brain has some parts that they share with animals and some that are best developed in human beings, who are thinking creatures. The thinking parts of the brain are divided into two lobes, the left and right lobes or hemispheres, and a frontal lobe that is tasked with making decisions. The left lobe is good at looking at sequences and language, so it understands cause and effect, and the command "squeeze my hand." The right lobe is good at music and shapes and creativity. Both are important, but western civilization tends to put more emphasis on the things you do with your left hemisphere.

Arizona Congresswoman Giffords' brain injury was on the left side of her brain, and much of the damage of the wound was reportedly to her left temporal lobe area. The left temporal lobe is the part of the brain that is most associated with speech. The area known as the Wernicke's area is located there, and is especially related to speech. Damage there can cause word finding problems (anomia) that seem like the tip of the tongue phenomena, but on steroids, and also verbal memory. Most of these problems are lumped together under the term aphasia, which also includes both receptive and expressive speech. Together with the Broca's area- further forward in the frontal left side - these areas are the ones associated with speech.

Brain injury recovery prospects were good for Phineas, whose skull is pictured here along with the iron pole that peirced it.
Brain injury recovery prospects were good for Phineas, whose skull is pictured here along with the iron pole that peirced it.

Brain Injury Recovery

Many were surprised when a bullet went "through" the Arizona congresswoman's head, and yet she survived. But psychologists and neuropsychologists have been aware for some time that the brain can improvise, and intact parts can make up for lost functions, something they term plasticity. Plasticity is better in younger patients it seems, which is good news for our young troops as well as for the Arizona congresswoman.

Probably the most memorable example of an improbable surivor of brain trauma was Phineas Gage. Mr. Gage was a foreman of a crew that was blasting rock, and while preparing a blast, an explosion went off and sent a 3 1/2 foot iron that was more than an inch in diameter through the left side of his brain. The bloody rod landed nearly 80 feet away. The right side of his brain was apparently undamaged.

Mr. Gage not only survived but was able to talk with his doctors, walk, and initially appeared to have few problems. After being tended to by physicians a slow recovery ensued. Initially he could talk but only in monosyllables. He lost vision in his left eye. There were some initial personality changes, so that his peers said he was "not the same Gage" they had known, but the persistence of those changes seems to have been exaggerated, and he eventually lived out a productive life. He was unable to work or at least hold a job, over the first several months but was eventually able to hold his own.

The troops- and the congresswoman, need everyone's prayers and support, but they also need our encouragement. One of the most effective ways you can show support for the brain injured troops is by donating to either the wounded warrior project or volunteer at programs like the California Foundation for Brain Injured Veterans.

photo credits: Phineas Gage, by Jeremy Muhlich brainlobes by Mykyl Roventine


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    • Max Dalton profile image

      Max Dalton 6 years ago from Greater St. Louis, Missouri

      Very interesting. This is the first I've heard of plasticity. It's pretty amazing what the human body can endure.

    • teamrn profile image

      teamrn 6 years ago from Chicago

      What a wonderful hub; well-researched and written. When I think of the long rehab road ahead, I shudder. But, the quick reaction and actions of the first responders and staff at the hospital were a reflection on our healthcare; we should NEVER forget that despite our healthcare system travails, we have one of the best delivery systems. There is much to improve, but much to keep!

    • SUSIE405 profile image

      SUSIE405 6 years ago from Delray Beach, Florida

      Very interesting hub. The Congresswoman has not talked yet but from reports seems to understand and interact with visitors. Hopefully she will talk once they remove the tube from her throat.

    • authorfriendly profile image

      authorfriendly 6 years ago from Charleston, SC

      Thanks back at ya Ralph; seems the Arizona Congesswoman Giffords brain recovery prospects improve with each day. Not only is she able to see, but she can respond to some more complicated instructions that suggest she still has sequencing ability.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 6 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Thanks that's interesting and helpful.