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The Margin: Bob Saget’s fatal head injury is a wake-up call for us all


Bob Saget’s family has revealed that a fatal head injury was the cause of his death last month — a pain that many other families probably know all too well. 

Saget, 65, was found dead in his Orlando, Fla. hotel room. The official autopsy report released Friday by the Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office found that the “Full House” actor died as the result of “blunt head trauma,” as reported by CNN.

“It is the most probable that [Saget] suffered an unwitnessed fall backwards and struck the posterior aspect of his head,” says the statement from chief medical examiner Dr. Joshua D. Stephany. “The manner of death is accident.” 

Traumatic brain injury, defined as an injury that affects how the brain works, is a leading cause of death and disability among children and young adults in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

An estimated 1.5 million Americans sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) every year, and 50,000 die. In 2019 alone, there were about 61,000 TBI-related deaths in the U.S., the CDC reports, or roughly 166 TBI-related deaths every single day. 

Earlier this week, the late comedian’s family also said that the cause of death was an unspecified trauma to his head.

This brings to mind the tragic case of Tony-winning actress Natasha Richardson, the late wife of Liam Neeson and daughter of movie icon Vanessa Redgrave, who suffered a fatal traumatic brain injury in 2009. She fell and hit her head while skiing in Quebec, but declined medical treatment at first. Four hours later, she went to the hospital complaining of a headache. Turns out, she had suffered an epidural hematoma, aka bleeding between the inside of the skull and the outer covering of the brain, or dura. She later succumbed to her brain injury at age 45.

Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury, leading to nearly half of TBI hospitalizations, according to the CDC. Motor vehicle crashes and assault are the other most common ways that Americans sustain a brain injury. But firearm-related suicide is the most common cause of TBI-related deaths.

Sports injuries are another concern, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (aka CTE) among athletes in contact sports like football and boxing. Indeed, the degenerative disease has been found in the brains of more than 315 former NFL players.

Each year, 230,000 Americans sustaining TBIs are hospitalized and survive. But 80,000 to 90,000 of these survivors continue to suffer long-term disability as a result of their injuries. Comedian and “30 Rock” actor Tracy Morgan is a prominent example; he suffered a traumatic brain injury from a “horrific” 2014 motor vehicle accident that left him in a coma for eight days. He told “Today” in 2015 that the crash left him with some memory loss and recurring headaches. 

“There are times where I have my good days and my bad days, where I forget things,” he said at the time. “There are times where I get the headaches, and the nose bleeds.”

Indeed, some common disabilities from TBI include problems with cognition (such as thinking, memory and reasoning); sensory processing (including sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell); communication (expression and understanding); and behavior or mental health (depression, anxiety, personality changes, aggression, acting out and social inappropriateness).

And such head trauma can also take a devastating financial toll. The economic burden of health care costs from nonfatal traumatic brain injury in the U.S. was estimated to be $40.6 billion in 2016. The lifetime costs of a patient’s treatment for a traumatic brain injury are estimated to run from $85,000 to $3 million.

As the National Institute of Health notes, however, it’s common for people to bump their heads. And many times, our skulls protect our brains from serious injury. 

So what are the signs of a traumatic brain injury? 

A headache that gets worse or does not go away

Repeated vomiting or nausea

Convulsions or seizures

An inability to wake up

Dilated (enlarged) pupil in one or both eyes

Slurred speech

Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs

Loss of coordination

Increased confusion, restlessness or agitation

Anyone with signs of moderate or severe TBI should receive medical attention as soon as possible, the NIH says. Doctors will use imaging tests and a neurologic exam to make a diagnosis, and will then determine treatment from here. 

Most people with a minor TBI or concussion can recover safely at home — after getting a medical check-up. But those with more severe injuries may need ongoing care and rehab to continue with their recovery.

And it should be noted that while anyone can sustain a traumatic brain injury, some groups of people are at greater risk of dying or experiencing long-term health problems following their injury, including: racial and ethnic minorities; service members and veterans; people who experience homelessness; people in correctional and detention facilities; intimate partner/domestic violence survivors; and people living in rural areas. Those with lower incomes and without health insurance have less access to TBI care, for one thing. This is often due to health disparities for these at-risk populations. Learn more here.

And get more information about traumatic brain injury here.

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