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Open Head Brain Trauma Injury and Recovery - JFK and Gabrielle Giffords

Updated on March 8, 2018
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty uses advanced degrees in preventive medicine and health psychology in research and treatment for public and private health agencies.

President Barack Obama with former Representative Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords and her husband, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, in the Oval Office after they testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence on 30 January 2013.
President Barack Obama with former Representative Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords and her husband, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, in the Oval Office after they testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence on 30 January 2013. | Source

Prevention of Gun Related Violence

Upon hearing the words that Representative [D-Arizona] Gabrielle Giffords had been shot in the head, I flashed back to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, another official shot in the head. I'll remember both days.

I thought truly that public figures were taking better safety precautions over 45 years after the JFK shooting. From this day in early 2011, I think they need to take more precautions. Open air events are not safe.

We may not as a nation suffer a larger percentage of psychopaths or individuals suffering psychotic breaks in the 2010s than we did in in 1960s, but we hear more about the ones we do have, and more quickly. Giffords's attacker killed a greater number of people at a much smaller event than surrounded JFK's Dallas autocade as well.

Happily, the Arizona Representative's chances for recovery are measurable and have been measured over several years. President Kennedy's chances were nonexistent and the conflicting stories of physicians and others in his operating room have clouded the picture too far to be parsed.

The Internet is full of news that 45+% of mental heathcare recipients lost their coverage and treatment in the Giffords district of her state. What will be done to help the mentally ill and save lives?

January 20, 2011 -- Representative Giffords was able to get out of bed and take a few assisted steps with help of hospital staff. This was on the 50th Anniversary of President JFK's famous inaugural speech.

Some of the media focus on comments that make the furthest outlying (politically) Democrats and Republicans seem to blame each other's political party for Giffords's injury. Be this the case or a result of media focus, I do not know; but it wastes time -- Both sides claiming the other to be evil does not help victims like Giffords or those with Severe Mental Disorders (SMDs) that attack them. Who will be next?

Eerily, Giffords's husband Mark Kelly was scheduled to pilot the last US Space Shuttle Mission, his wife's attack pulling him away in another blow to our continuing Space Program, a dream of JFK's. That a child born on 9/11 - or any child - should perish in the attack of a psychotic is horrendously incredible. The stress of the Congresswoman's attack is no doubt taking a toll on Kelly's brain as well. I am beginning to feel that public figures and their audiences should wear bullet-proof space (bubble) helmets and body armor.

The Injured and Aging Brains

During work as a biofeedback specialist and psychology assistant in private practice and at the rehab division of our state Workers' Compensation (WC) department, I worked for approximately 10 years with a number of closed head and open head brain trauma clients. Some of these cases were extremely difficult to gain progress, while others seemed to miraculously recover in a few weeks.

The WC division featured a head trauma rehab computer lab in which clients used PCs loaded with exercises and games in order to increase brain function. They worked very well for a number of clients. for the more severely injured, there were days of high frustration followed alternating with days of progress.

From the late 1980s to the present, we've found that the brain, once injured, continues to heal for the life of its owner.

We've also found that the white matter of the aging brain continues to grow (Giffords is at about the right age) after the grey matter stops growing, helping the individual to synergize and make more logical connections with new information input into the brain and the data already resident there. The older brain can be a better problem solver and this may help Giffords in her recovery.

Healing does not stop, then, in the brain, but the human body sometimes cannot live long enough for the brain and the rest of the Central Nervous System to attain full healing.

The central nervous system or CNS.
The central nervous system or CNS.

For instance, Christopher Reeve had regained the use of his hands and was beginning to be able to walk with his legs submerged in a swimming pool of water, the pressure of the water helping to support his legs. A sequence of infections that attack a patient whose immune system is compromised (immobility adds to this compromise) ended in one that killed him before he was completely healed. He did have some electrical implants, to help his CNS, but his CNS was still healing. To me, it was like wearing braces until one's teeth are straight. Still, his case and cases at Wright State University (Dayton OH) since the late 1970s and in France have made inroads to our understanding of the healing and recovery of the brain and the rest of the CNS.

USSR even experimented with dog-human brain transplants (sections of brain) before the 1960s - we are hearing about similar research in 2010 - 2011 as if it is a new thing. Nazi Germany was home to brain/CNS research as well, much of it lost, destroyed, or just coming to light. There is brain research everywhere, not all of it ethical.

Overall, I think there is a lot of hope now for brain trauma patients, even with gunshot wounds to the head.

Passive and Active Exercise

Many have questioned why the media was so quick to announce that Gabrielle Giffords had died. It was likely sensationalism to gain more listeners and viewers, but it was untrue. Exercises would be a key to her recovery.

The fact is that her physicians felt that she would definitely survive her hospital stay and she did. She began recovering right away and continued to do so as of 2018.

A bullet passing back to front through a benign area of the brain's left hemisphere should not and did not result in a vegetative state. There was some loss of language and movement at first, but physical therapy, speech therapy, and art/music therapy all began to help right away.

The hospital was followed by time in a rehabilitation unit. Exercise is important in these cases, and passive exercises helped along with active movement. In fact, the Chinese user passive exercise in infants and the ill and it works to increase coordination and the function of both sides of the brain.

Passive exercise administered to increase range of motion.
Passive exercise administered to increase range of motion. | Source

What I've found in psychological, rehabilitation, and martial arts work is that exercising the non-dominant body half twice as much as the dominant half often brings the non-dominant up to the skills of the dominant, sometimes even in handedness (the client or student becomes ambidextrous or nearly so). This exercise can enhance the assigned functions of both sides of the brain to varying degree as well.

In the Giffords case, I would take the left side of the brain (right side of the body) as non-dominant, even if she is right-handed. Passive exercises of the right limbs through their full range of motion could be begun after brain swelling had subsided; followed by active rehabilitation exercises later. All this would be adjunct to other treatments and could help those treatments work better.

See the accompanying video for another case of brain injury and successful treatment.

Patients Can Hear in a Coma

We have known this for a long time. Wednesday 1/12/2011 was a miracle day when legislators in the Giffords hospital room, including Nancy Pelosi, and husband Mark Kelly continued to talk to Gabrielle and she opened her eyed. She came out of her medically induced coma without medical help, to my knowledge. If so, this is unusual.

The related memorial service at Tuscon later the same date was excellent. The seeming Giffords miracle may bring people of all parties together as humans instead of party members, as the President asked that night.

Sources

  • ABC News. Bob Woodruff Biography. Injured in Iraq by a roadside bomb. abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=127761 Retrieved December 5, 2011.
  • Brain Rehabilitation at Mayo Clinic Research - Their Own Model. www.mayoclinic.org/brain-rehabilitation/research.html Retrieved December 10, 2011.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Hope Through Research | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Hope-Through-Research/Traumatic-Brain-Injury-Hope-Through Retrieved December 15, 2011.

© 2011 Patty Inglish MS

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