published Saturday, June 6th, 2009

UT to get brain injury center

By Kristi L. Nelson

Knoxville News-Sentinel

A national organization has chosen the University of Tennessee’s Audiology and Speech Pathology Department, once slated to close because of budget cuts, to lead Tennessee and the country in changing how traumatic brain injury is handled.

The national Sarah Jane Brain Foundation on Friday announced lead centers — one in each state, and one each in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico — for its National Pediatric Acquired Brain Injury Plan. That plan will put into place a national network where families in any state can get comprehensive, consistent care for brain injury.

UT’s Audiology and Speech Pathology Department will be the lead center in the Southeast for mild traumatic brain injury treatment and assessment.

“We just kind of fit a niche that they needed,” said assistant professor Kristen King, who wrote the application.

King, who spent 14 years helping treat traumatic brain injury patients, is one of several UT researchers focusing on mild traumatic brain injury. She’s already planning collaboration with University of Tennessee Medical Center, the area’s only Level I trauma center and a “safety net” hospital for the region. There are opportunities to collaborate with other local agencies as well, she said, such as Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital and Mercy Health Partners.

King expects UT’s program to be able to expand research and services because of affiliation with the foundation. The foundation will provide funding, she said, to hire people for jobs set out in its already-detailed plan, and also has some money allocated for space.

Traumatic brain injury is the leading cause of death and disability for Americans 25 and younger. Causes include accidents (motor vehicle, sports, war-related), assaults, child abuse, substance abuse, strokes, brain tumors, infections, meningitus and other illnesses. About 37,000 children 14 and younger are hospitalized for brain injury each year; another 435,000 visit the emergency room, and more than 2,600 die, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Department director Ilsa Schwarz thinks the Lead Center designation will snowball into more recognition — and more funding — for the department, which UT threatened to close last fall because of budgetary concerns. After public outcry, the university kept the department and its clinics on the Knoxville campus, though it is now administered by the UT Health Science Center College of Allied Health Sciences in Memphis.

The new recognition from the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation “sort of highlights the idea that when we were threatened with termination, people came out of the woodwork saying, ‘Don’t do it! We need these services!’ ” Schwarz said.

Kristi L. Nelson may be reached at 865-342-6434.

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