March is TBI Awareness Month - Hampton VA Medical Center
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Hampton VA Medical Center


March is TBI Awareness Month

Jones finishes her meal

Debra Jones, a former Army officer impacted by TBI, is elated at her accomplishment of cooking a meal from a recipe during a recent occupational therapy session at the Hampton VA Medical Center.

By Michelle DaBell, RN, MSN and Kenita D. Gordon, Hampton VAMC Public Affairs
Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Hampton, Va. – The aroma in the air as U.S. Army Veteran Debra Jones prepared unstuffed pork chops was intoxicating. Friday, March 18 was a milestone of sorts as she learned to cook an incredibly fragrant and delicious meal with the guidance of her Polytrauma team therapists at the Hampton VA Medical Center.
Jones, who suffers from a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), has been a patient of the Hampton VA for years and attends regular visits with occupational therapists and other Polytrauma specialists as part of her recovery. A tragic accident which changed Jones’ and her family’s life forever, took away her ability to do certain tasks on her own such as cooking while following recipe instructions. 

In 1988 Jones was traveling from Norfolk, Virginia when she experienced a Motor Vehicle accident on her way home from a military training exercise. Her accident was severe and upon arrival for emergency care she was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma that required an immediate craniotomy and evacuation. After her accident Jones says that while a patient at Norfolk Sentara Hospital she was given a 20 percent chance to live, was comatose for about two weeks and hospitalized for two and a half months.

Jones smiles proudly

Debra Jones, a former Army officer impacted by TBI, presents her finished meal during her recent occupational therapy session at the Hampton VA Medical Center.

Her family was told that she may never walk again but she did and that’s not all. “Now I’ll be able to cook a meal for my mom. My family will never believe I cooked this meal. I’m so happy there will be pictures to prove it this time,” she said with a beaming smile. Since her accident, Jones has received care from various providers in the community and for the past several years she has been treated by the Polytrauma staff at the Hampton VA. Part of her recovery is participating in cooking sessions like the one on Friday facilitated by Tonya Swindell, occupational therapist and Cynthia Speight, speech language pathologist at Hampton. “Our goal is to ensure that Ms. Jones is able to perform everyday tasks and follow directions allowing her to reach her personal objective which is to prepare meals for her mother,” Swindell explained. “With therapy we hope to eventually see patients who suffer with the same type of injuries function more independently.”

“We follow patients like Ms. Jones for life,” added Speight. “Once patients enter into the Polytrauma Clinical Support team’s care we are their family. We help them use some of the compensatory strategies in therapy and transfer them into everyday activities like cooking. Learning how to process things in order like following a recipe helps to keep Ms. Jones on track with the task at hand.” 

The injuries Jones sustained from the accident have permanently affected her mobility, speech, and memory. “I now suffer from short term memory loss, no peripheral vision and chronic pain. My recovery has been the most challenging aspect of my life considering I was Air Assault Qualified and commissioned [as an officer] from the ROTC program at Hampton Institute (which is now known as Hampton University),” said Jones. Instead of succumbing to her injuries and allowing them to dampen her spirits, Jones used her personal struggles to become an advocate for others who have suffered from TBI’s. She has proven herself to be a powerful activist over the past 28 years bringing awareness to TBI complications. She regularly attends the Denbigh House, in Newport News for her vocational rehabilitation training, compensatory strategies and social integration needs.  At this facility she has contacted legislators about brain injury services in order to bring attention to the debilitating defects of these types of injuries. She advocates for the rights of individuals with TBI whenever she can, emphasizing the need for compassionate and understanding care. 

TBI/Polytrauma Team poses with Debra Jones

Jones (center) poses during a break from her March cooking session with two of her polytrauma team therapists Tonya Swindell (left), occupational therapist and Cynthia Speight (right), speech language pathologist at the Hampton VA Medical Center.

She shares that a TBI injury is an invisible injury that is often misunderstood. It is usually hard to reconcile these types of changes because it doesn’t reflect one’s struggle on the outside since the outward appearance of the person still seems the same. “If someone breaks their leg, there is a cast, crutches, and clear signs of how painful walking is. There aren’t any casts or crutches to help someone through brain injury symptoms like confusion, anxiety, and forgetfulness, which are often misinterpreted,” said Jones. She is grateful for the Denbigh House and Hampton’s Polytrauma team’s role in her recovery, where she has attended speech therapy, occupational therapy and received case management.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TBI is a major cause of death and disability in the United States, contributing to about 30 percent of all injury deaths. From 2006 to 2010 falls were the leading cause of TBI, accounting for 40 percent of all TBIs in the United States followed by blunt trauma and motor vehicle crashes. Those who survive a TBI can face effects lasting a few days to disabilities which may last the rest of their lives. However, many of these incidents may be preventable.

Hampton’s Polytrauma team’s goal is to remind everyone that prevention is key, and offers the following recommendations:

  • Wear your seat belt every time you drive or ride in a car or other motor vehicle. Small children should always sit in the back seat of cars, away from airbags and use safety seats.
  • Wear a helmet and make sure your children wear protective helmets when participating in such sports as baseball, snowboarding, bicycling, horseback riding, skateboarding, etc.
  • Never drive while vision –impaired or under the influence
  • Never drive while distracted.
  • Prevent falls by clearing hazards such as loose rugs and uneven floors. Install handrails, improve lighting and exercise to your doctors instructions to maintain your health.
  • Use safety gates for children, install window locks and install pool safety gates with close monitoring at all times.

For more information on VA’s Polytrauma and TBI programs visit


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