Brain Injuries Can Have Life-Altering Consequences

Young Drivers at Risk for Crashes, Trauma

Spring is a fun time for many teens who are on the road celebrating the end of the school year, proms and graduations. Sadly, the season also brings stories of young drivers killed and injured in automobile accidents. However, few of those stories focus on the often devastating lifelong effects of traumatic brain injuries.

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is defined as a blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the function of the brain. The severity of such an injury may range from “mild,” such as a brief change in mental status or consciousness, to “severe,” which can include an extended period of unconsciousness or amnesia. A TBI can result in short or lifelong problems with independent function.

“Too many young people never think about getting injured in a car accident or, if they do, they focus on a hospital stay and recovery from broken bones,” said Lynn Brouwers, director of neurosciences for Spectrum Health Worth Services.’ “They don’t realize they can suffer an injury from which there may be little recovery, or an injury that can leave them with a disability that could prevent them from ever working or living independently.”

Young drivers are at high risk for traffic accidents, fatalities and injuries said Brouwers, whose employees, along with staff from Spectrum Health Continuing Care Center, provide rehabilitation, home care and residential services for TBI survivors. Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on young drivers are startling:

  • 15 to 19 year olds are among those at highest risk for TBI
  • In 2005, 4,544 teens ages 16 to 19 died of injuries from auto accidents nationally
  • During 2005, nearly 400,000 motor vehicle occupants aged 16 to 19 sustained nonfatal injuries severe enough to require treatment in an emergency department
  • Per mile driven, teen drivers are four times more likely to crash than older drivers
  • A 2006 survey found that seat belt use continues to be lower among 16 to 24 year-olds than other age groups

The effects of a TBI can be devastating. The CDC estimates that at least 5.3 million Americans currently have a long-term or lifelong need for help to perform activities of daily living as a result of a TBI.’ This injury can cause a wide range of functional changes affecting thinking, language, learning, emotions, behavior and/or sensation. It can also cause epilepsy and increase the risk for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“People, especially teens, don’t realize how life changing a TBI can be,” said Brouwers. “It can be heart wrenching for people to watch a son, daughter, sibling or friend have to learn to talk and walk all over again. It’s also tragic when one of these injured young people realize that they will never again be the person they were, and that they will have to greatly alter their hopes and dreams of the future.”

To underscore the reality of a TBI, Spectrum Health Continuing Care teamed with Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital and Hope Network Rehabilitation Services in Grand Rapids to support the production of a video focusing on the lives of young, former patients who received brain injuries in auto accidents. It was produced by the National Road Safety Foundation and taped in West Michigan.

Titled “The Other Breakfast Club,” the video follows the stories of six people under 30 who suffered traumatic brain injuries from car crashes, which resulted in coma and the need for intensive rehabilitation.’ At various stages of recovery, this group, which calls itself The Other Breakfast Club, meets monthly for moral support.

“The film gives an accurate picture of how painful, long and frustrating the road to recovery from traumatic brain injury can be,” said Michael F. Dabbs, President of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan, which is helping to promote the film.’ “Many of the devastating brain injuries sustained every year from traffic crashes are preventable,” he added.’ “It’s a needless waste.”

“It has drastically changed my life,” said The Other Breakfast Club member Kelley Syverson, of Grand Rapids, who was injured nearly six years ago at age 24.’ “In many cases, recovery from TBI means having to re-learn everything, from hand-eye coordination to thinking through the various steps involved just to feed yourself.’ It takes unimaginable patience from both the patient and the rehab workers.”

“Like many young people, I thought I was invincible,” said David Tubergen, 27, of Grand Rapids, injured at age 23 when his car, speeding at 90 mph, left the road and flipped five times.’ “The most important lesson I hope people get from this film is to value your life by driving responsibly.”

Parents have an important role in keeping their young drivers safe, said Brouwers. “I would urge all parents to talk with their children and stress how one moment of bad judgment can mean a loss of independence and ability, plus a lifetime of need. Watch the film together. The events of spring should be a time of joy, not loss.”

“The Other Breakfast Club,” which runs 47 minutes, is available free of charge for schools and other organizations. The National Road Safety Foundation, a non-profit group formed more than 40 years ago, produces and distributes free films and teaching materials that deal with drinking and driving; speed and aggressive driving; and drowsy and distracted driving.’

All materials can be downloaded at the NRSF Web site at or obtained by calling 1-800-SAFEPATH.

Spectrum Health is a not-for-profit health system in West Michigan that offers a full continuum of care through its seven hospitals, more than 140 service sites and 560,000-member health plan, Priority Health.’ Spectrum Health’s 14,000 employees, 1,500 medical staff members and 2,000 volunteers are committed to delivering the highest quality care to those in medical need.’ The organization provided $98.6 million in community benefit during its 2007 fiscal year. Spectrum Health has earned more than 50 national awards during the past 10 years.