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In Memoriam: Natasha Richardson

PUBLISHED: March 21, 2009

With the tragic death of Natasha Richardson earlier in the week, the world has lost a tremendously talented artist, an actress whose versatility allowed her to charm audiences, wow critics, and entertain viewers whether performing for the silver screen or on the stage. Although her career stretched for a remarkable 41 years, her death at a mere 45 was far too soon, by any measure.

Yet despite the loss to the theater and film industry, even more significant than this professional tragedy is the personal loss suffered by a family: the husband, sons, sister, mother and other loved ones who are left to mourn the healthy, vivacious woman there was no reason to think would soon leave them. And yes, in this case the husband happens to be Liam Neeson, an actor whose craggy profile and distinctive voice are unmistakable, while the mother is Vanessa Redgrave, an actress whose fame likely surpassed her daughter’s. But today, the famous members of this family are not, primarily, famous; they are simply grieving along with the thousands of other families who have lost loved ones to traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

As a former triathlete, I suffered a TBI following a header over the handlebars while out on a training ride. At the time, I was 19 years old. Without the helmet, based on the extent of my injuries, paramedics told my family that I likely would have died on the road before arriving at the hospital. When I woke up—and thankfully I was one of the lucky ones with no permanent effects other than 24 hours of amnesia and a headache that lasted a good 6 months—my helmet was one of the first things I noticed. It was completely shattered, cracked and distorted into multiple pieces. And staring at the mangled bits of sparkly red plastic made me realize something that is still sobering today, many years later: if I hadn’t been wearing that helmet, those shattered pieces would have been my skull.

It is estimated that approximately 2 million Americans suffer TBI each year, leading to 500,000 hospitalizations. Such injuries are the leading cause of traumatic death in the United States with reported mortality rates as high as 21% at 30 days post-injury. Even for those who survive TBI, there are often long-term consequences ranging from memory loss and cognitive deficits to physical handicaps. An estimated 2-6 million people in the United States live with TBI-associated disabilities.

It is impossible to say why some people fall, hit their head, and are fine, while others suffer an apparently minor injury with catastrophic consequences. But any activity with the potential for head injury should make us consider whether or not we (and those we love) are taking appropriate precautions. The data for skiing injuries is not definitive, but we do know that helmets worn while cycling or riding motorcycles can be lifesaving in the event of a head injury. And a motor-vehicle accident, wearing a seat belt can make a huge difference with regard to head injuries (among other things). There is no good reason not to use helmets and seat belts and to make sure that everyone you know does the same.

Our health care system spends millions of dollars on trauma victims, and much of this spending would be unnecessary with more effective public health decision-making. Even more significant than the economic argument is the personal one. Do any of us want to be the person who suffers permanent disability or even dies from an injury that was preventable? I certainly don’t, and if not for a bike helmet, I undoubtedly would have.

Unfortunately, the passage of time means that all of us will lose people we care about to circumstances that are all the more heartbreaking for being completely unexpected, entirely unpredictable, and beyond all reason. There isn’t much we can do to control these things. But in the midst of living our busy lives, there are some monumental decisions we can make, no matter how inconsequential they may seem at the time.

Wear a helmet.
Buckle up.
Pass it on.

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