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March 19th, 2009
05:39 PM ET

Head trauma is nothing to be taken lightly

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

The death of actress Natasha Richardson is tragic. A beautiful, vital 45-year-old goes for a ski lesson and falls. She gets up, declines medical care and goes back to her hotel. From there, the story takes a terrible turn. She becomes ill, and is transported to one hospital, then another and then finally to a third hospital near her home, where she dies two days later from brain injuries caused by an epidural hematoma. Her family, friends and fans are shocked. How can something as innocent as a ski fall  kill you? Because, neurologists say, the brain, although complex, is a delicate organ. It's very vulnerable and it needs to be taken seriously. And even a bump on the head can take its toll. Unfortunately, I know this all too well.

Thirteen years ago, my husband, daughter and I were in a terrible car accident on the Florida Turnpike. On our way to Orlando, our vehicle was hit by a driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel. Although we all had our seat belts on, our car swerved and hit a bridge embankment. My husband's head went out the side window, hitting the windshield and the concrete. When EMS workers got to us, it looked as if a battle had taken place: burning cars, debris. And because my husband had a major slice to his head, blood was everywhere. I was not hurt, and my daughter had a minor cut from flying glass. They loaded us into ambulances and took us to two different hospitals, my husband headed for the local trauma unit. He stayed two days in the hospital. They stitched up his forehead and sent him home, mentioning that he may want to see his doctor once he got back to Washington, D.C. And although the whole thing was terribly traumatic, we left Florida three days later, with my husband behind the wheel of a rental car.

Because he felt fine and there seemed to be no urgency to his injuries, my husband went back to work and made an appointment with his doctor to have a CT scan two months later. When he got off the table, the radiologist asked him to sit down and immediately called a neurologist. As the doctor viewed the images, his face turned pale and he asked my husband how long had it been since he was in the accident. My hubby shrugged and said, "A couple of months." The physician then told him not to move - he was going to schedule surgery immediately. It seemed my husband had developed a subdural hematoma that covered his entire brain. According to MayoClinic.com it's usually formed from head trauma that causes the brain to be shaken severely. Many children who suffer from shaken baby syndrome have these type of injuries. And unlike epidural hematomas, which bleed in the brain fairly quickly, my husband's injury developed slowly, causing a massive bruise to form. One false move could have given him a stroke, or caused permanent brain damage.

Although my husband made it through brain surgery without incident, there is a lesson here. Never take a head injury for granted. When doctors looked at his scans in the ER in Florida, they obviously did not see the bruising that later formed over his brain. Because the brain is loaded with large and small blood vessels, head injuries can cause all sorts of serious problems. Studies have shown that athletes who suffer even minor concussions can develop neurological problems later in life. The brain is nothing to be messed with.

Ironically, March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. And although brain injuries are not as common as, say, broken bones, they do happen and many have serious consequences. They need to be treated immediately. In this story, my husband got treated, before suffering brain damage. He was fortunate. God bless her, but Ms. Richardson was not.

Have you ever faced head trauma? Know someone who has? What happened? We'd like to hear about it.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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soundoff (336 Responses)
  1. Lisa

    I tripped at the top of my stairs and flew three feet & head first on a brick floor. I don't remember much. I lost a tooth but the impact was mostly to my forehead. It seems like it was weeks later & I had a terrible headache. My stomach hurt from taking Advil. I went to ER, They treated the headache & stomach, The doctor & his nurse came in to sign me out. The Doctor asked my husband why I was acting strange and my husband told him it just started and about the fall. (We were uninsured), The Doc glanced at the nurse and she looked down. Then the Doc said "ok, you're good to go. After that, it got worse by the day! Now I'm a year out and totally dependent on my husband. If you hit your head and Doctors don't see outside damage but you feel you aren't right, demand help. My doctor and ER doc both didn't bother cause we were cash pay. My reg doctor did the same. I asked for a reference of a neurologist and he said he didn't know anyone. It's too late now. I am getting more concentration but have a small attention span and all my memories are gone from raising my Son to what I did five minutes ago. I have a loving husband, if not for that I would not want to go on like this. If you have to sell your car to get help do it! I doesn't always get better. Just harder!

    March 15, 2017 at 15:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Mary Stewart-Glover

    I fell 3' off my make shift front porch early morn of 3/18. Not sure if I lost consciousness or how long I laid there crying. There was a lot of blood loss and swelling at the point of impact and above my ear. My head was numb for almost 48 hrs.
    I live alone and had been celebrating St. Patties day at the bar. It took me about 15 min to make into the the house. I staggered when I stood up luckily my keys were stilll in the door. I took off those stupid high heels and climb the stupid wobbly cinderblocks. Blood had gotten in my eyes and was flowing at a steady rate. I wrapped a towel around my head and stayed up long enough to make sure the bleeding was slowing down,about 30 min.
    Thinking I came though this fine till a little voice in my head said, " Go online and see how long and what could possibly show up long after a head trauma."
    Your article is a real wake up call for stubborn people like myself. I'm a widow with no insurance but I'm calling Salud to see about getting myself checked out.
    I did think to take picture to help with time frame. It's now been 60 hrs. since it happened
    This is my 3rd head trauma in 7 yrs. First time required 3 days hospitalization and staples. It was over a year before I could look up with out getting dizzy. 2nd time I went to ER.
    I've been weepy since the fall. I don't know if it has to do with the fall or the fact that my mother passed on 3/18/13,my fathers birthday.
    My father passed on 2/19/11, a year and 2 day after my husband passed

    March 20, 2017 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Brian DeLuca

    My 35 yr old goddaughter had called me to pick her up at the airport. I got there and she and her four kids waved to me and I started to drive over towards where she was standing when she had a slip on the ice and fell on sidewalk. She quickly got up and brushed herself off. I had already run over to her and asked if she was OK and she said she was fine. We went home, unpacked and got settled in. The next morning she woke up and was fine. Around 4 pm she said she didn't feel good and thought she might be coming down with a cold, she was CNA and worked with sick people so she thought nothing of it. She said she was going to lie down for a while. I said I would make some soup. About 6pm I brought in the soup and she decided she'd eat it in kitchen. She finished and said she still felt sick so she went back to room. I went in about 6:45 to get some laundry in room and she was snoring away. At 7:45 her youngest son who is 8 came to me and said that he went in room to wake his mother up but she was sleeping still. I went in and she was not breathing. I called 9/11 and I started CPR, it seemed like forever but the ambulance came in 14 minutes. She was gone. The autopsy showed her brain had swollen and she died from that fall on the ice. I am still remembering it over and over in my head, if I had only known to do something. I would never had thought that something like this would ever happen. Her four kids are now without a mother. Such a tragedy. Life is such a fragile thing.

    March 22, 2017 at 01:30 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.