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As Gabrielle Giffords Resigns, Little Mention of Traumatic Brain Injury Patients' Long Journeys

As Gabrielle Giffords Resigns, Little Mention of Traumatic Brain Injury Patients' Long Journeys

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gabrielle giffords, traumatic brain injury, reporting on health, barbara feder ostrov

Reading about U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' emotional resignation from Congress, I was struck by what was missing from the media coverage: mention of the long and grueling journey that lies ahead for her and for so many others with traumatic brain injuries. (One notable exception: Charlotte Observer reporter Karen Garloch's interview with Giffords' speech pathologist.)

There was plenty of coverage (and rightfully so) of Giffords' remarkable early recovery after being shot in the head last Jan. while at a political event outside of Tucson, Arizona. Less attention has been paid to her ongoing struggles.

Even with its largely positive tone, Garloch's story hints at some of them:

Five months after the shooting, Kelly contacted (Nancy) Helm-Estabrooks, who had been recommended for her specialization in patients with aphasia, a condition that makes it difficult to speak and form sentences.

Helm-Estabrooks said Giffords is more high-functioning than some patients with aphasia, which is common among brain injury patients.

Although Giffords can't form long sentences, she does use "high information words," nouns and adjectives that convey meaning. "It's the grammar that helps you form full sentences that has been the struggle for her," Helm-Estabrooks said.

Recently, Giffords has begun using small sentences and started asking questions.

"Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope," a memoir written by Gifford's husband, Mark Kelly, revealed that the shooting cost Giffords 50 percent of her vision in both eyes.

In this video, you can hear Giffords' halting speech as she talks about her plans to resign.

Journalists have done groundbreaking work on the long-term physical and psychological effects of traumatic brain injuries sustained in war. To mention just two examples:  Frank's Fight, about the difficult recovery and eventual death of an Army corporal injured in the Iraq war, and Brain Wars, the ProPublica/NPR project on traumatic brain injuries in the military.

There also are compelling stories to be found in the recoveries of people brain-injured by rough sports, local violence or accidents. Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter Kimberly White's account of her own recovery from traumatic brain injury after an accident provides a great road map for what to ask about.

Giffords' resignation is a poignant reminder that for patients both famous and ordinary, the medical story doesn't end when the media glare fades. Maybe it's time for journalists to revisit the soldiers, athletes, accident victims or victims of local violence they once covered to see how their recoveries are going.

Reporting Resources:

Brain Injury Association of America

Medline Plus: Traumatic Brain Injury

Brain Injury Rehabilitation Facilities

The Concussion Blog

Photo credit: Pete Souza via WhiteHouse.gov

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