My brain injury isn’t a joke

Societally, we’ve seen so many “mild” head injuries portrayed as humorous plot points that we’re numb to taking it seriously.

Off the top of your head, I bet you can think of at least one movie or TV show that portrays a head injury. Probably even more.

How about that scene in Parks and Recreation where Andy Dwyer sneezes while hanging his gold record and smacks his head on the wall? Because it’s Chris Pratt, his visit to the doctor is pretty hilarious.

Screenshot from YouTube.
Dr. Harris: So, Andy, tell me what happened.
Andy: I was reading an encyclopedia and I tripped, or “fell over,” and hit my head, or “brain helmet.”
April: Yeah, he sneezed and smacked his head against the wall.
Dr. Harris: That sounds about right. Well, if it’s a concussion, it’s extremely mild, so I wouldn’t worry about it. Anything else?

Because he clearly perceives Andy to be less intelligent than he is (and Andy is meant to be a dumb but lovable character), Dr. Harris doesn’t take what would normally be weird behavior into account. Andy looks right when asked to look left and vice versa, showing a gap in cognitive function.

Andy’s dialogue is meant to be a joke, but it’s clearly a delusional response under normal circumstances. If this were real, and Andy weren’t prone to saying silly, ignorant things while trying to sound smart, April would be concerned, like, “Um, why are you making up some crazy alternative story to what really happened to you? Do you have memory loss?”

Sure, this is a TV show and it’s meant to be funny. But that’s the problem. For anyone who has been uneducated in head injury who was watching this they’d probably think, “Oh, mild head injury. Got it. It’s not serious. Dr. Harris would know what to do if it were more severe.” Well, that’s true, if Andy had been unconscious for any amount of time, had gross structural damage that can be seen on an MRI or CT scan, or had more exaggerated symptoms.

For many, head injuries resolve themselves fine in a few weeks or months, but for some, the fallout of a mild traumatic brain injury, or mTBI, is lengthy, life altering, and frightening. It’s anything but funny.

In 2015 I accidentally hit my head on a wall. This precipitated Post Concussion Syndrome, a nightmare of pain, inexplicable symptoms, and poor answers from medical professionals. It wrecked my life, forced me to quit my job, prevented me from following my dream of enrolling in law school, and sent me to bed to live in isolation for a year and a half before I healed to the point where I could address the problem with every inner resource I had. I still deal with the fallout today.

It’s dangerous and irresponsible to portray “mild” head injury the Andy Dwyer way because it obscures the lives of millions of people who live with disability caused by mTBI.

It’s dangerous and irresponsible to portray “mild” head injury the Andy Dwyer way because it obscures the lives of millions of people who live with some degree of disability caused by mTBI. It creates a false, unnuanced popular consciousness surrounding the brain that even a lesser hit to the head isn’t severe. The thing is, maybe that first hit wasn’t. Then again, maybe it was.

The FDA recently approved a new blood test to diagnose concussion in the 12 hours following the injury, a huge leap forward toward better concussion care. It will empower patients with persistent symptoms in new ways. They will have definitive physical proof that an injury occurred. If symptoms persist, they will have proof that the damage happened and that it is more extensive than originally thought.

Societally, we’ve seen so many “mild” head injuries portrayed as humorous plot points that we’re numb to taking it seriously. Millions of people each week watch multiple head injuries take place in football games and see people come back into the game after the player’s bell has clearly been rung.

Brain injury survivors need help and support, not ridicule, to recover.

Brain injury, mild or severe, is no joke. If someone hits their head, you might want to laugh. It’s an instinct, one that has been made socially acceptable through many inaccurate portrayals and misinformation. Maybe you’re laughing to keep from crying. Keep in mind, though, that a head injury is potentially life-threatening and life altering. Brain injury survivors need help and support, not ridicule, to recover.

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Know the facts. #BrainInjuryAwareness2018