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The Resilience of the Human Spirit: Famous Faces of TBI Recovery

Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) have been around since the earliest days of humanity. Papyrus records from Ancient Egypt describe some of the first treatments for brain injuries and skull fractures, and the works of Hippocrates classify different types of brain traumas and their effects. In those days, military injuries accounted for as high as 93% of TBIs. In modern times, between sports injuries, car accidents, falls and firearms, more than 2.5 million Americans suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI) every year. A forceful blow to the head, jolt to the body, or penetrating injury can damage the most important organ in your body - with long-lasting or permanent effects on your physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities. 

The severity and effects of a TBI can vary, depending on the age and health of the victim and the force and location of impact. Mood disorders like depression and anxiety are common after a TBI, as are personality changes, irritability, and impulsivity. While a mild TBI, or concussion, may result in more temporary symptoms like headaches, dizziness, confusion, and memory loss, more severe TBIs can cause difficulties with speech and language, memory, motor coordination, and sensory processing. In the worst cases, a TBI can result in permanent disability or death. Thankfully, medical, rehabilitative, and psychological interventions for TBIs have come a long way since Ancient Egypt, and TBI survivors today have a far greater chance of recovery.

Every day, our personal injury lawyers work with clients dealing with the devastating effects of a brain injury. We have been consistently amazed by these individuals, who refuse to lay down in the face of adversity, taking on a steep recovery process with courage and determination. This unbreakable spirit has been recorded in countless TBI survivors who have achieved great success in spite of their challenges. Although our clients with TBIs may not (yet) have achieved worldwide recognition, our attorneys have witnessed their perseverance firsthand. In honor of Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness Day, let’s take a look at some of the most unexpected, famous, or successful people who have overcome TBIs. 

Steve Wozniak

 

In February 1981, computer genius and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak stalled his single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza during takeoff. The plane plummeted, crashing into the runway and leaving Wozniak, then 31, with traumatic injuries to his head and body. He struggled with anterograde amnesia for the next 5 weeks, unable to form new memories. Wozniak credits his full recovery to the Apple II computer games he played in the hospital. While he later distanced himself from his career at Apple due to leadership differences, Wozniak went on to found several notable tech companies and nonprofit organizations. He remains an active part of the engineering community to this day. 

 

Abraham Lincoln

 

Given Abraham Lincoln’s almost mythical reputation, few know that he was the first TBI survivor to be elected president. When he was 10 years old, he was grinding food at the mill when his irritated horse kicked him in the head. Until he woke up the next day, his family was afraid he had died. His face was asymmetrical after the accident (a feature often mocked by his enemies), with weakness on one side. Throughout his career as a successful lawyer, inspirational wartime president, and legislative genius, Lincoln struggled with “melancholia” (clinical depression), vision problems, and headaches that historians believe resulted from his early brain trauma. 

 

George Clooney

 

In 2005, while filming a scene in action movie “Syriana” where he was tied to a chair, George Clooney hit the back of his head on the floor when the chair was knocked over. In doing so, he ripped his dura, or the membrane holding the fluid around the base of his brain. Clooney holds that the pain of this injury was excruciating, “like having a severe ice cream brain freeze that lasted 24 hours a day.” He was soon diagnosed and rushed to surgery, but continued to suffer from migraines and short-term memory loss while directing “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Clooney eventually sought out a “pain guy” who helped him reset his pain threshold. Since then, he has won an Oscar and countless Academy Awards for his work in acting and directing - and shows no signs of slowing down. 

Henry VIII

 

Henry VIII (1491-1547)  stands out from other celebrities and historical figures on this list in that he lacked any semblance of success after his TBI, despite being one of the most famous cases. During his youth, Henry was known as even-tempered, handsome, and intelligent. In his mid-30s, he suffered two separate brain injuries while jousting. In 1524, a lance broke through his visor, causing concussion, and two years later, a horse fell on him and knocked him out for two hours. The decline of Henry VIII is credited by many historians to these traumatic brain injuries, which they believe left him with the memory problems, explosive rage, poor impulse control, headaches, insomnia, and (possible)  impotence that defined his reign. 

In later life, Henry grew notorious for both his tyrannical style of leadership and tendency to execute his wives. He brought England into losing wars, died in debt, handed out executions like candy, and annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to wed his mistress - leading to the violent English Reformation. 

 

Harriet Tubman

 

An enduring symbol of liberty and perseverance, Harriet Tubman overcame impossible odds to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom on the underground railroad. She did this in spite of not only enslavement and abuse, but a traumatic brain injury she received at 12. While Tubman was on an errand, she refused a shopkeeper’s order to restrain a fugitive slave. The shopkeeper threw a 2-pound weight at the escaping slave - another child - and missed, hitting Tubman instead. Bleeding from a cracked skull, she remained unconscious for several days. When she awoke, she was immediately put back to work without treatment. After the injury, Tubman experienced a religious awakening, reporting vivid hallucinations and powerful visions from God instructing her to free those under bondage. She certainly achieved this, though her injury left her with seizures, headaches, and narcoleptic spells for the rest of her life.  

Roald Dahl

 

You might know Roald Dahl as the beloved author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and other popular children’s books. He also fought in WWII. During his service as a Royal Air Force pilot, Dahl ran out of fuel, crash-landed in a North African desert and nearly died. He was left temporarily blind, with a cracked skull, severe migraines and frequent blackouts that later ended his military career. Dahl credited some of his creative genius to his TBI. Tom Solomon - neurology specialist at the University of Liverpool and Dahl’s longtime friend - suggested that in the crash Dahl had damaged the part of his frontal lobe that controls inhibition. The stories he would publish of child-eating witches and giant peaches were considered outlandish at the time, but are widely celebrated today. 

 

Muhammad Ali

 

Muhammad Ali spent much of his boxing career convinced he would not be affected by the powerful punches from his opponents or suffer any type of brain damage - he even encouraged his sparring partners to hit him in the face, hoping to build up resistance during matches. His fighting strategy involved letting an opponent strike him until they grew tired, then pummeling them in later rounds. Historians estimate Ali was hit about 200,000 times over the course of his career, and over half of these blows were to the head. His speech slowed over the course of his life, and he later developed “Parkinson’s Syndrome,” a neurological condition brought on by brain damage. Ignoring physicians’ recommendations to retire early, he continued to fight until 1981. Over the course of a 21-year career, Ali established himself as a legendary boxing champion, winning the heavyweight title 3 times and defending it 19 times.

 

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