As a result of the serious concussion suffered in a Saginaw High School gymnasium, Ms. Garza-Espindola has had to find new ways of processing information and dealing with social situations. Her recovery is painfully slow and could take years due to the unseen damage the injury inflicted on her brain.
"I may look fine on the outside, but nobody knows what a brain injury is like until they experience it," said Ms. Garza-Espindola, now a freshman majoring in nursing at Texas State University in San Marcos. "You have no idea how bad it can be."
Ms. Garza-Espindola is the type of patient the new Texas Institute for Brain Injury and Repair at UT Southwestern Medical Center aims to help. The Institute, which was launched on February 28 by UT Southwestern, will undertake basic and translational research that will promote better understanding of brain damage at the cellular level and will seek to identify new therapeutic opportunities that, ultimately, can be translated into innovative, improved clinical care.
"The development of this Institute at UT Southwestern is very timely, as concussion has become a public concern. We know that no two concussions are alike, and risk factors for prolonged recovery are poorly understood," said Dr. Munro Cullum, Director of Neuropsychology at UT Southwestern and part of the new Texas Institute for Brain Injury and Repair at UT Southwestern. "There is so much to be learned about concussions such as Ms. Garza-Espindola's, including improving diagnosis, identifying those at risk for prolonged recovery, determining factors predictive of recovery course, maximizing treatment, and understanding long-term effects."
Although Ms. Garza-Espindola's long-term recovery plan is a work in progress, she has made steady, gradual improvement. Among the concussion's effects were abnormally variable emotions, ranging from depression to anger to apathy. She now takes antidepressant medication and undergoes therapy to help manage the effects.
"My emotions were crazy. I found myself getting mad for no reason, and I sometimes just burst into tears," she said. "The emotions became overwhelming and would come out of nowhere."
When the injury occurred, her mother, Elizabeth Flores, and school officials initially thought she had recovered from the fall, since she passed a concussion test shortly after the incident. But on the way to a doctor later that day for a checkup, her world literally spun out of control.
"When I got out of the car, I could barely stand up. I was walking like I was drunk," Ms. Garza-Espindola said - though she cannot remember anything about the experience or the cheerleading accident. "The light killed my eyes and I couldn't look at or listen to anything. That's when they put me in an ambulance and took me to the hospital."
Ms. Garza-Espindola was diagnosed with a level 3 concussion. After being released later that week, she spent 45 days sleeping almost nonstop in her darkened bedroom. At that time, she was in sensory overload, unable to handle lights, sounds, or any type of brain stimulation.
When she returned to school, Ms. Garza-Espindola found her ability to function impaired. Her advanced placement class load was reduced due to her difficulty learning and focusing. Cheerleading was out, along with her other love, competitive dance. She couldn't figure out why, but even spending time with friends wasn't appealing.
"I didn't care about hanging out with friends and I didn't care about supporting my cheer team. I just wanted to be alone and didn't know why. I didn't want it to be that way, but couldn't help it," she said.
Time and medication gradually improved her ability to think, function, and enjoy life again. Milestones since have included graduation from high school, despite missing so much of her senior year, and acceptance to Texas State University, where she is working to become a pediatric nurse specializing in brain injuries. Ms. Garza-Espindola still suffers symptoms, including headaches and nightmares that escalate during times of stress, and she is still taking medication to deal with concussion-related depression and anxiety.
"We're hoping Kennedy will make a full recovery. However, because it's the brain, there's no way to tell if she will go back to ‘full normal' or have to deal with symptoms the rest of her life. Unfortunately, there's no real way to know," said her mother, Mrs. Flores.
Ms. Garza-Espindola hopes sharing her experience may help others who suffer serious concussions. More research is needed to improve treatments for brain injury patients, she said, adding that she is hopeful the new brain injury institute at UT Southwestern may help others avoid a long, arduous recovery. She plans to meet with Dr. Cullum again for a follow-up.
"I still have so many questions, and I hope Dr. Cullum can give me those answers, and see how I've progressed," she said. "The Institute is very much needed and would be a benefit to others who suffer a brain injury."
About UT Southwestern Medical Center
UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution's faculty includes many distinguished members, including five who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. Numbering more than 2,700, the faculty is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in 40 specialties to nearly 91,000 hospitalized patients and oversee more than 2 million outpatient visits a year.
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