Actress's death highlights need to take head injuries seriously

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SALT LAKE CITY -- An autopsy shows actress Natasha Richardson died from a blunt impact to the head, an injury that occurred when she fell while taking a beginners skiing lesson in Canada on Monday. She died two days later.

Doctors say patients with brain injuries sometimes have what's called a "lucid interval," where they act fine for an hour or more as the brain slowly, silently swells or bleeds. It may take only a simple fall or hitting your head in just the right place.

Ron Roskos and Lynda Valerio know all about brain injuries. Valerio's 5-year-old son, Alex, fell and hit his head against a trailer hitch. He had a goose egg, but he seemed OK.

"One week later he was taking a nap on my mother's couch and went into a seizure. And at that point, it was a pretty severe seizure that lasted 30 minutes," Valerio said.

Now, at age 11, some seizures linger and Alex sometimes has difficulty concentrating. As he grows into adulthood, the seizures may disappear and hopefully some of the other deficits as well.

When Ron Roskos fell and hit his head more than 16 years ago, he too thought he was OK. In fact, he went back to work later that day. Only after he answered a telephone call and his secretary told him what he was saying did he realize his brain had been hit pretty hard.

"I said, ‘I can't figure out why the guy got so upset. All I did is ask for his phone number.' And she said, ‘yeah, but you asked him 10 times.' And I never remembered that," Roskos said.

Injuries may be deceiving. A blow to the head can rupture small blood vessels on the surface of the brain. Blood clots then compress brain tissue.

The earliest warning signs include headache, confusion, short-term memory loss, weakness or convulsions.

"Seek treatment immediately because you never know. Even the smallest bump can be more serious than you believe, and we found out the hard way," Valerio said.

As a critical care nurse at a ski resort, Carolyn Hatfield has seen head trauma accidents like the one that took the life of Richardson. She hopes the death of Richardson will become a teaching moment for all of us: If you hit your head, by falling on a ski slope or anywhere else, take action quickly to Stay Safe.

"You look at her children's faces, it broke my heart because I've seen that look on parents' faces," Hatfield said.

That's one reason she's passionate about wearing helmets, but it's not the only one. She, too, fell and hit her head on a bunny hill and she suffered a concussion, even with a helmet.

"And I look back now and know that injury would have been worse had I not had a helmet on," she said.

Hatfield brushed it off until she couldn't remember how to put on her skis. That's why her second warning is to act quickly.

Doctors say in such injuries, patients often have a "golden hour" where they feel fine until the body no longer compensates. Life and death, she says, can literally depend on what you do in that hour.

Hatfield hopes others will heed her warning because, as she said, "If one family doesn't have to go through that, it is so worth it."

Fifty thousand people die from brain injuries every year in this country. If caught early, over a million are treated then released from emergency rooms.

This story was compiled with contributions from Ed Yeates and Deanie Wimmer.

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