Mothers unite to help others after teens suffer brain injuries

Tracy East gets a hug from Jessica Wills, 17, during a recent meeting of "Mothers Against Brain Injuries Inc." in East's Jacksonville home.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, May 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 30, 2006 at 11:31 p.m.
JACKSONVILLE - On a quick walk through Shands Jacksonville's pediatric intensive care unit, Tracy East almost shudders when she spies a child in bed hooked up to tubes and wires.
"That was Jason's room," she explains, recalling the terrifying days and nights her son spent in that hospital room, clinging to life after being injured in a car crash.
Carolyn Leonard and Bobbi Layton had similar experiences, never leaving Shands for weeks while their daughters hung between life and death after being run over by cars.
The women shivered through sleepless nights in the waiting room. They washed their hair in a bathroom sink. They didn't have a toothbrush or deodorant, nor did they have a pen and paper to write questions for doctors. They had no place to organize a steady stream of business cards.
The three decided other parents shouldn't have to endure the discomfort they did.
The mothers, nicknamed "Trauma Mommas" by East, started putting items in canvas bags and leaving them at Shands Jacksonville and Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville to be given to families of young trauma patients. There's a soft fuzzy blanket and pillow, prepaid phone cards, a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, a notebook, a business card holder and some aspirin.
"When you've been crying very hard for three days, you get a headache and you need aspirin," East said.
The moms, officially "Mothers Against Brain Injuries Inc.," raise money for their nonprofit organization through parties and a golf tournament. Each bag costs about $30 to $40. To date, the women have donated 89 to Shands in Jacksonville and 10 to Shands in Gainesville.
In a check of major trauma hospitals in Florida, none had a similar program.
"We have found that no other group is doing what we are doing and that is to provide immediate support, necessities, information and hope to the family of a child suffering a traumatic injury at any hospital," East said.
Steve and Jeneva Locklear, whose 9-year-old daughter Emily was severely injured in a car crash March 4, received one of the group's bags at Shands Jacksonville.
The Locklears have developed a bond with Leonard and her daughter, Kinsey, who spent weeks at Shands after being run over by a pickup truck.
"I thought it was wonderful. I was touched by it," said Jeneva Locklear.
On a recent Friday night, Carolyn Leonard sat with Steve and Jeneva while Emily was in surgery.
"She has been very supportive. That gave me strength and hope," Jeneva Locklear said. Dr. Joseph Tepas III, a pediatric surgeon and director of the University of Florida Regional Trauma Center, praised the women's work.
"Despite over 30 years experience in managing severe injury, helping parents get through the first few dreadful hours and days remains the most challenging and heart rending part of the job. Your efforts make it a bit easier and sent an important message that the victims are not alone."
Tepas calls the canvas bags "an oasis of hope."
Doctors can work wonders, but can only do so much.
"There is brain injury and brain damage. Our total focus as surgeons is to optimize the recovery of the brain, so that the brain damage is minimal," Tepas said. About 100 youngsters are treated each year in the pediatric intensive care unit at Shands Jacksonville hospital for traumatic injuries, the leading killer of children.
The Trauma Mommas' children - who coincidentally all attend Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns County - are working to recover all the brain functions they had before their injuries.
While Justin has graduated from high school, Kinsey Leonard and Jessica Wills, Layton's daughter, will have to make up classes they missed because of their injuries and rehabilitation.
It was during lengthy periods at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville where the mothers forged their bond.
Their children and another Bartram Trail student, Rachael Tofany, earned the nickname "The Brains" at Brooks, because all have suffered brain injuries.
Rachael was the first of the four injured when she was ejected from a car in an accident. Next came Kinsey Leonard, who was hit by a pickup truck while waiting for a school bus. Justin East was in the back seat of a friend's car when it hit a guardrail. Finally, there was Jessica Wills, who was hit by a car while also waiting for a school bus.
East, Layton and Leonard each dealt with the cold reality that their child could die or never regain functions such as walking and talking.
"She is a walking, talking miracle," Bobbi Layton says of her daughter. "Every one of them is."
Because Kinsey Leonard did not talk for a long time and only had a 35-word vocabulary, Wills overcame her own injuries to learn sign language to communicate with her. The teen now wants to work with the deaf.
"God kind of threw us together for a reason," Layton said. "If we didn't have somebody to talk to, we kind of all would go crazy."

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