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State House member travels long road back from brain injury

Loretta Baca was visiting Utah in 1989 to check out graduate school when a male friend suddenly turned violent and beat her viciously, whacking her head on a table, the floor and with a rock.

That began a long struggle to regain what she had before: motor skills, walking, talking, even the ability to interact appropriately with other people.It was a tough fight, but Baca said it was worth it. Today, she is a state legislator, wife and mother of a 16-month-old son. However, she suffers from brain injury Parkinson's disease and must take medication for the rest of her life.

"You can recover. However, it is a long, long, long recovery and it is very costly," Baca said at a Friday press conference attended by brain injury survivors, government officials and members of the Brain Injury Association of Utah.

In her case, prevention wasn't an option. But in many instances, prevention can mean the difference between life and death, between living a comfortable life or living with debilitating impairments.

Baca advised listeners to buckle up their seat belts in cars, not drink and drive, wear helmets when biking, roller skating or skate boarding, and never shake a baby.

"Even though my life has been traumatic after brain injury, there is life after traumatic brain injury," she said.

October is Brain Injury Awareness Month, and the association is sponsoring a two-day conference for brain injury professionals, survivors and family members in Park City.

The nonprofit association provides information, resources, support groups, volunteers and other services to people with brain injuries and their families. It also lobbies government on behalf of brain-injured people and tries to educate the general public about brain injuries.

Someone sustains a brain injury every 15 seconds, according to Saara Grizzell, who is heading the conference. Every 15 minutes, someone dies from a brain injury. Of those who survive, 70,000 to 90,000 endure some kind of lifelong disability. Some live with permanent health problems and never recover fully.

Grizzell said 50 percent of brain injuries occur in auto accidents, 21 percent from falls, 12 percent from assaults, 10 percent from sports or recreational activities, and 7 percent from other causes.

Among other things, survivors may experience a loss of motor skills, speech and memory, and they may undergo personality changes. "The family is equally devastated. They must grieve the loss of a survivor who looks the same but isn't the same," she said.

Additionally, 85 percent of these families assume primary care for the injured person when he or she leaves the hospital.

Brain injury also is expensive for families and communities. These injuries cost $7.6 billion annually, including such indirect costs as lost wages for the injured person and family members quitting full-time jobs to care for the individual, Grizzell said.

Barbara Hayward, president of the association, knows these pressures all too well. Her son, Bregg, was thrown 600 feet from his car into a ravine during a 1994 accident. He was in a coma for three weeks, in the hospital for three months and spent a long time in rehabilitation. However, his recovery turned out well: He regained his abilities and now is serving a mission for the LDS Church.

When brain injuries occur, everyone must "move to plan B" and carry on despite the difficulties, she said.