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UCF Starts First Traumatic Brain Injury Program in the Country, Local Students Treated at No Cost

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By Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala

Imagine not being able to remember whether you shampooed and conditioned your hair in the shower, moments after you did it. Now imagine going through that same experience every day for the rest of your life.

That's exactly what happens to hundreds of college-age students with traumatic brain injury when they don't get the rehabilitation they need. It happened to University of Central Florida student Amanda Patrick shortly after a car accident that injured her brain.

"It's absolutely frustrating," Patrick said. "And if you don't get both physical rehabilitation and mental rehab, your academic life -- your entire life can be ruined."

TBI is a term used to describe a brain injury caused by a blow to the head, a fall or a motor vehicle accident. Dozens of stories about TBI have been written about injured soldiers returning from the conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan. But 15 to 20 percent of the nation's college population also suffers from TBI, according to a study in 1996 and more recent studies at UCF. While they may conquer the physical injuries related to their trauma, problems with long-term brain function often go undetected for years.

That's part of the reason UCF is launching a first-of-its-kind TBI Program to provide academic rehabilitation to college students with the condition. UCF is the first university in the country to offer such a program on campus, and its leaders believe it will become a national model.

The program also will give graduate students studying communication disorders the opportunity to learn key techniques and therapies to help people master the long-term mental challenges related to TBI. They will be able to take courses on TBI beginning in the summer and will learn by working side-by-side with their supervisors.

"Many times these college students have been hurt in a car accident or have suffered other traumatic brain injury in their pre-teen or teen years," said Larry Schutz, the director of the UCF TBI program and a clinical neuropsychologist. He had directed brain injury rehabilitation programs treating young people in New Jersey and Florida since 1983.

"While they may get rehabilitation for their physical injuries, the mental implications sometimes take a while to manifest and even when they do, young people tend to deny there is a problem. If they aren't helped, they are at risk for failure," Schutz said. "But we have developed the technology required for a good recovery."

Taking advantage of the new technology and therapies is what helped UCF's Patrick get back on track after a car accident in December 1998 left her in a coma for 17 days. She was in the middle of her junior year of high school. She recovered from her physical injuries but struggled when she returned to school.

"At the time of the accident, I was ranked fourth academically in my class. I would study for a test and do really well," she said. "I had a whole system for studying and I juggled lots of extracurricular activities like student government and various clubs. After my accident when I didn't use the therapy technique I was taught I would fall flat on my face. Not only was memory loss an issue, but so was my mental processing ability."

To cope with her mental limitations, Patrick used and adapted the techniques Schutz and his team taught her in rehab, which helped her finish high school and get into college. She earned a bachelor's degree at UCF in Advertising and Public Relations and is now pursuing a master's degree in English Language Arts. She intends to become an English teacher.

Depending on the severity of the injury students may experience difficulties remembering information, taking accurate and complete notes, demonstrating knowledge on exams and organizing their study time. The treatment teaches students strategies that allow them to think effectively using the brain systems that are still healthy.

"You literally have to learn how to think again and you can't do it the way most people do," Patrick said.

The cost of treatment, which Schutz said isn't typically covered by insurance, runs about $70,000 for about 400 clinical hours. But in Florida, those who have been diagnosed with TBI can get treatment paid for by a special state fund for rehabilitation of brain and spinal cord injuries.

Schutz learned the basic strategies for TBI from a pioneer in the field, who helped to develop the current standard of care.

"We're using best practices, sound research and innovative techniques we've been developing," Schutz said. "It makes a difference in people's lives. And I am confident we will become a national demonstration school that will help revolutionize the way we treat young people with TBI."

Co-directors of the new UCF program are Janet Whiteside, a specialist in adolescent and adult TBI, and Kenyatta Rivers, a specialist in child and adolescent TBI. All services and training will occur on the main campus.


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