Morgan said “fighting every day” when asked how his recovery is going. (Photo by Lenny Abbot/Splash News)
Comedian Tracy Morgan had to put his life and career on hold in early June after he was involved in a fatal six-car crash in New Jersey. The accident left him with a broken femur, leg, nose, ribs, and, perhaps most notably, a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
“Fighting every day,” the SNL and 30 Rock actor told a photographer on Wednesday. The cameraman asked Morgan how he was doing as he entered a local post office with the help of a walking aid and a nurse.
There was a promising aspect to the sighting: Morgan was last spied in public in early October using a wheelchair. The fact that he has now graduated to a walker is a huge step on his road to recovery.
But he also doesn’t appear to be rushing it.
Morgan tabled the FX series he was developing to focus on improving his health, and has only been seen in public a handful of times since the accident.
The actor’s lawyer referred to Morgan’s brain injury as “severe” — although no one’s sure exactly what that means, as TBIs involve different degrees of severity.
A mild traumatic brain injury is essentially a concussion, and generally involves a knock to the head.
There might be a gash and brief alteration of mental status like dizziness and confusion, or a headache afterward. However, with these mild injuries, the brain remains generally protected by the skull, and doctors won’t see any areas of irritation on an MRI. They usually heal on their own with rest, over-the-counter pain relievers and a little time.
Moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries are different, which is likely what Morgan has experienced.
Measured on a 15-point basis by something called the Glasgow Coma Scale, medical professionals assess a person’s level of cognition after an accident and generally has to do with how long the victim’s lost consciousness. Where a score of 13 to 15 is normal, a moderate injury falls between 9 and 12, and a severe score is less than eight.
There are no reports of Morgan’s exact injury. However, both a moderate and severe traumatic brain injury require time for healing and recovery, says Robert Cohen, Psy.D, a neuropsychologist at Orlando Health and director of neuropsychology at Compass Research.
How much recovery time is dependent on the injury and the person, and can vary widely.
“After a severe traumatic brain injury, the brain has the ability, over time, to heal on its own,” Cohen tells Yahoo Health. “The blood, swelling, toxic chemicals and hormones take a long time to pull back. After a severe injury, by and large, depending on the parts of the brain involved, it can take two to two-and-a-half years to get to a place where you’ll peak.”
However, that timeframe differs dramatically from person to person, which is why docs hesitate to give a prognosis early on during treatment. Usually, though, after roughly two to three years a person with a more severe injury will see a plateau, says Cohen.
Sadly, that “peak” after a moderate-to-severe TBI may not be the sufferer’s pre-accident normal. “Most people with severe traumatic brain never get fully back there,” Cohen says. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be functional human beings.”
Early intervention is key, starting right after the accident.
After the injury has been stabilized, doctors will work on a personalized treatment plan. That may include a mix of surgery, physical therapy, speech therapy, and neuropsychological evaluation until a sufferer is at a “level that leaves you safe to go home,” says Cohen.
From back home, rehab will continue.
The body and brain are miraculous, and will heal some of the TBI on their own, but various therapies will make all the difference — and will last as long as it takes. “It’s so important to be reasonable with a person’s progress,” says Cohen. “We never want to put a limit on someone’s rehab potential, but the expectation can’t be that they will go back to the same level they were before the accident.”
Cohen says that it’s hard to gauge where a person will ultimately peak, because even doctors and therapists are evaluating a TBI sufferer on their basic brain functions. “And it’s the higher-level thinking that makes us successful in our jobs, gives us motivation to excel and helps us develop life skills,” he explains.
The bottom line? Brain injuries are unpredictable.
Improvements will come in baby steps, over time, for a long time. “The sooner we realize this, the happier we are with small gains that are made,” says Cohen, who also notes that depression is commonly associated with these types of traumas — and just another reason why realistic goal-setting and timelines are key for bouncing back.
One day, though, we might see a shorter timeframe on the healing process. “Researchers are looking into it,” says Cohen. “Right now, there are clinical trials looking to speed up recovery through the use of different medications and stimulators implanted in the brain.”
But for now, the TBI recovery process is still slow and steady.
Morgan may be right on track, because there’s no one pathway back from a TBI. We’ll have to patiently wait on the funny man’s return, sending him positive thoughts and well wishes as he heals.
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