After Bob Saget’s family announced on Wednesday that his January 9 death was due to a concussion he didn’t think was “that serious,” the question we should be asking ourselves is: When is a head injury not serious?
Classified technically as a mild traumatic brain injury, a concussion is normally treated as minor, leaning heavily into the “mild” portion of the terminology. But at the start of February 2022, a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine claimed the classification of traumatic brain injuries as “mild,” “moderate,” and “severe” has led to unnecessary deaths. The circumstances surrounding Saget’s death coming out right after feels like a macabre example of the report’s validity — and a reminder our brains are more fragile than we might be inclined to believe.
If nomenclature is the problem with our consideration of head injuries, maybe we need to stop calling concussions “concussions” and say the truth: they’re traumatic brain injuries.
In 2015, I fell over 20 feet out of a Redwood tree and suffered what was classified as a severe traumatic brain injury. As a result, I ended up in a 10-day coma and am permanently disabled at age 25, but I survived. In 1980, my mom’s childhood friend fell less than two feet from the hood of a car she was sitting on in front of their high school. She hit her head on a curb and died at age 14. Head injuries are extremely specific to each individual and should always be treated as potentially life-threatening.
According to the Glasgow Coma Scale’s rating system used to classify traumatic brain injuries from severe to mild, with a lower number considered of worst severity, concussions often receive a 9 or higher because they often don’t result in loss of consciousness. But that doesn’t account for the diffuse axonal damage a brain can suffer from even a mild jolt. I’ll explain diffuse axonal damage by asking you to imagine Jello in a plastic Tupperware with the lid on. The Jello is your brain, and the Tupperware is your skull. Shake the Tupperware and the container keeps the Jello from spilling out, but the Jello ricochets off of the sides and none of the Jello remains untouched—even the portions in the center not touching the sides.
Translation: when you hit your head, you don’t need an object to penetrate your skull to cause damage to regions of your brain located in deeper sectors; parts like the cerebellum, that controls your breathing and heart rate. In my case, I had a closed head injury that resulted in ataxia — or balance issues — because of the damage to my cerebellum, as well as an inability to regulate my body temperature because of the damage to my hypothalamus. I also have neuropathy, phantom nerve pain and twitches, and a whole host of other deficits.
The saddest part of Bob Saget’s story, to me, is that his death was preventable. I grieve for his family from him, who shouldn’t have had to endure this tragic loss of life. I can only hope this helps change the way we talk about head injuries and how we all handle any head traumas ourselves in the future.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.