Carol Stanley’s life took an unexpected turn one day in January of 2007 when her son Jason, a student at Auburn University, was physically assaulted by three other men. The attack left Jason with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that might have eluded medical staff if it weren’t for his worsening symptoms and his mother’s persistence in finding the right care for her son. The life-altering incident set Jason on a path to recovery and led Carol on an often frustrating crusade for better laws – laws that are more favorable to victims and less protective of those who commit the crimes. We will tell their story in segments over the next few days.
The three men who assaulted Jason caused him to fall backward and hit his head on the concrete pavement, knocking him unconscious. Aside from several contusions on his head, Jason experienced tinnitus (a constant ringing in the ears), difficulty hearing, and vertigo. Emergency medical personnel transported Jason to East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, where physicians assured Carol that Jason had just received some cuts on his head and would be fine.
“The sad thing about traumatic brain injury is that you can look normal,” Carol said. Jason appeared to be relatively intact, so doctors sent him home.
According to Carol, the next 24 hours turned out to be “very upsetting.”
Jason woke up vomiting blood. Carol helped him into the car and drove him to the emergency room at Baptist East Hospital in Montgomery. Upon arriving, Carol attempted unsuccessfully to get hospital staff to bring a wheelchair out to the car as Jason was unable to walk. Having obtained a wheelchair inside the ER, Carol went back to the car and put Jason in the chair herself and wheeled him in.
Inside the hospital, Jason felt increasingly dizzy and threw up every time he moved, yet he was not permitted to lie down. Carol even had to leave her son unattended in the hospital while she went back out to move her car.
Hours later, doctors discovered the severity of Jason’s injury. Besides the open wound requiring three metal staples, Jason suffered from fractures on his skull and jaw. Both fractures transected and severed the nerves in his right ear, leaving Jason deaf on that side.
Jason was transferred to the intensive care unit at Jackson Hospital, where he remained for 24 hours. He then spent 5 days under observation in the hospital’s neurology ward. The same day he was released from Jackson Hospital, he went to an oral surgeon who operated on his jaw and wired his mouth shut.
All of Jason’s doctors focused on the visible injuries – the ones that could be seen with the naked eye or by x-ray and treated accordingly. The invisible injuries, however, remained undetected and untreated.
Several weeks had passed and Jason called his mother to tell her that there was something wrong with him. “He felt very depressed, and that wasn’t like him. He knew there was something wrong,” Carol said.
Worried, Carol called Jason’s neurosurgeon and told him about her son’s concerns. The doctor put her in contact with a neuropsychologist who was familiar with TBI. Only then did the deeper significance of Jason’s injuries come to light.
“Nobody had ever told us this at all, about traumatic brain injury. Had my son not called me, I don’t know that we’d have ever found this out. He had anger, he had PTSD, he was depressed. We had no idea how all of this was connected. That’s what people really don’t understand about TBI,” Carol said.
“Now I am better able to help Jason understand that this is part of his TBI, so he isn’t as scared or confused about why he is reacting the way he is.”
According to the Brain Injury Association of America, as many as 1.4 million people sustain TBI every year in the United States. Of those, approximately 50,000 die, 235,000 are hospitalized, and more than one million are treated and released from an emergency department.
Jason’s ordeal underscores the confusion and anxiety that many head injury victims and their families experience given the elusive nature of TBI.
Because TBI is so common yet so poorly recognized, Carol believes it is critical to raise awareness of its causes, its different forms and symptoms, and its treatment. “If parents or loved ones don’t realize, the situation can escalate because they don’t understand that it’s related to a physical injury,” Carol said.
Next: Jason’s Story, Part 2 – Navigating the criminal justice system for victims of TBI