What began as one more cheerleading practice on a sunny afternoon in October ended changing Alexandra Hensley’s life. While rehearsing a new formation, another cheerleader lost her balance when doing a pirouette and fell over Hensley, who hit her head twice and had to be flown to Miami Children’s Hospital.
“I had had a previous brain injury and I thought this was going to be the same, that I was going to have a headache for two days and then everything would go back to normal,” said the 15-year-old high-school student.
It didn’t work out that way.
After a series of tests, Alexandra was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. She was released, but two days later she was back in the emergency room.
“She couldn’t stop crying because of how intense the headache was,” recalls her mother, Janine Hensley, 43.
The pain continued for more than three weeks and then it came back intermittently, particularly after studying or reading for a while. She had problems concentrating and finishing her homework.
“She tried to hide the pain, maintain a positive attitude and move on with her normal activities, but it was too much,” her mother says.
The family went to the Miami Children’s Hospital’s new Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, where Alexandra has been receiving medical care for more than eight months.
Alexandra’s is not an isolated case. More than 500,000 children in ages from infancy to 19 are treated for traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in emergency rooms throughout the country every year, according to the Brain Injury Association of America. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention classifies this type of injury — usually caused by blows, clashes or in some cases by physical abuse — as the No. 1 cause of disability among children and teenagers in the United States.
“This is a serious problem,” said Dr. John Kuluz, specialist in neuro-pediatrics who heads the Miami Children’s Hospital’s Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic.
“Many of the head injuries cases we see in emergency rooms are just that, head injuries,” he says. “But it’s very difficult to predict in the case of a child if that injury is a passing thing or if it is something more serious that will present recurring symptoms.”
The symptoms of traumatic injuries in children can appear days, months and even years after the accident. The patient can suffer irregularities that go from physical changes — persistent headaches, balance problems and hearing or visual hallucinations — to cognitive problems such as attention span difficulties and short-term memory loss as well as insomnia and personality changes.
“Brain injuries require time and physical and mental rest to heal adequately. The problem is that it is often difficult to get the child to rest because their nature is to be active and they want to continue doing all the things they used to do normally,” Kuluz says.
Studies show that children with this type of injury can benefit from multidisciplinary treatments. Pediatricians and neuro-pediatricians work with neurosurgeon pediatricians, as well as physical, occupational and speech therapists to treat the symptoms as a whole, at times combining them with medications for optimal results.
“What normally happens with children who do not receive this type of treatment after a traumatic brain injury is that they return to school and study hard, but then have even more symptoms, can’t think normally, don’t do well in class and get behind,” Kuluz says.
Alexandra was relieved to hear in her first office visit with her new specialist that her case could be cured.
“My doctor made me understand that I am not the only one who has gone through this,” Alexandra says. “She helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel and that I could have a full recovery.”