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Video: Surviving traumatic brain injury

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    MATT LAUER, co-host: Back now at 8:09, kicking off our special series MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN . More than one million Americans suffer traumatic brain injuries every single year, but thanks to remarkable advancements, more of them are now defying the odds. Here's NBC 's chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman .

    Unidentified 911 Caller: I have an officer that's struck with head injuries . Both officers are down with head injuries . One is having a hard time breathing. There's...

    Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN reporting: A 911 call about a potentially catastrophic brain injury , reminiscent of other stories we've heard before. Journalist Bob Woodruff suffers a serious head injury when an IED explodes in Iraq . Long Island mother Mary Jo Buttafuoco , who opens her door to her husband's mistress and a gun. And recently US Representative Gabrielle Giffords sustains a gunshot wound to the brain. She's now recovering in a Texas rehab facility. Today we call these victims survivors, but that was not always the case. Twenty years ago, a severe brain trauma almost certainly meant a death sentence.

    Dr. GEOFFREY MANLEY (UCSF Vice Chair of Neurological Surgery): What's that last set of labs in...

    SNYDERMAN: But now with new technology and aggressive treatment, more people are living to tell their stories. Twenty-five -year-old San Francisco police officer Nick Ferrando was racing to respond to a call when his vehicle collided with another and he was ejected from the car. At San Francisco General Hospital neurosurgeon Dr. Geoffrey Manley recognized the severity of his injuries and immediately got Nick into the operating room . Nick was in a coma, and brain swelling was the first hurdle.

    Dr. MANLEY: He was really one of the first of now a group of patients who was treated with a decompressive craniotectomy.

    SNYDERMAN: Just like in Congresswoman Giffords ' case, a large portion of his skull was removed to allow the brain to swell, preventing further damage. Four weeks later he awakened from his coma.

    Mr. NICK FERRANDO (Survived a Traumatic Brain Injury): My first thing that I remember was opening my eyes and seeing my family.

    SNYDERMAN: Just like the others, the long journey back to recovery was only beginning.

    Dr. MANLEY: I think this is a great frontier in medicine, is not only how do we stop these people from dying and bring them back, but then how do we help them to rebuild their brains.

    SNYDERMAN: Simple skills that we take for granted like walking and talking, he had to learn all over again.

    Mr. FERRANDO: The best way to describe it is it was like being an infant all over again.

    SNYDERMAN: Trying to put the pieces of his life back together, Nick got married and had two children. But there was still one piece missing, his life as an officer.

    Mr. FERRANDO: They say I can't do it, and I want to show them that I can.

    SNYDERMAN: Not only has officer Ferrando returned to the police force , but just last year he received the Police Officer of the Year award. How would you describe the calling of a police officer ?

    Mr. FERRANDO: When something happens and the majority of people think to run away from it, police officers run towards danger.

    SNYDERMAN: It's almost what Dr. Manley did to you.

    Mr. FERRANDO: Yes. Exactly.

    LAUER: Nick Ferrando is with us, along with Crystal Elmendorf , another traumatic brain injury survivor. And Dr. Nancy joins us as well. Good morning to all of you.

    Mr. FERRANDO: Good morning.

    Ms. CRYSTAL ELMENDORF (Survived a Traumatic Brain Injury): Good morning.

    LAUER: Nick , it's been about eight years since your accident.

    Mr. FERRANDO: Yes.

    LAUER: And has every day during that eight-year period been kind of a work in progress for you?

    Mr. FERRANDO: I wouldn't say a work in progress , you know. It's -- in the beginning, it definitely was, but it's been fortunate for me. With the support of my family and my mother, my father, the police department and San Francisco General , I've been able to return to normal life like anybody else, in the same way.

    LAUER: So you are 100 -- in your opinion, 100 percent of where you were before the accident.

    Mr. FERRANDO: Yes. I think I have been for some time now, which is something. I can't even give enough thanks to the people who have supported me along the way.

    LAUER: You talk about those first days and weeks after awakening from the coma as being like an infant. Do you -- do you remember the frustrations of trying to learn these simple things over again?

    Mr. FERRANDO: Yeah. And then the reason I used infant as an example is, with brain injuries , the accidents are so severe, a lot of times you have other injuries to deal with. And for me, it was two broken femurs as well. So besides learning to talk, read, write, think, I had to learn to walk as well. So it was all the basic steps of life all over again.

    LAUER: Crystal , your accident was in 2001 , so you're about 10 years out from that.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: That's right .

    LAUER: And I understand the doctors thought you would never walk or talk again.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: That's right .

    LAUER: They were wrong.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: They were wrong.

    LAUER: What was it like getting back?

    Ms. ELMENDORF: In the very beginning -- and this is what I've been told -- I started talking right away. And I said right away when they weaned me out of the coma, they said -- I looked around the room and I said, 'What can I do around here to get a Diet Coke ?' And which was so me.

    LAUER: Demanding right off the bat.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: Which was so me. And so with that, you know, I was saying things that really applied to me.

    LAUER: You know, I was thinking, after reading both of your stories, that it might be tempting for viewers to look at how well you have done and say, well, these two simply worked harder, or they were more diligent with the rehab than others. Is that fair, or is that inaccurate?

    Ms. ELMENDORF: We worked hard, but I would say that, you know, based on what UCSF has to offer, which is a level one trauma unit -- thank you, God -- I mean, that's what -- the area of my car accident , I was taken to a level one trauma unit. And that's what really helped me get through my recovery. It saved me...

    SNYDERMAN: Matt, there are real parallels here between, you know, what Crystal 's talking about and Nick ...

    Ms. ELMENDORF: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

    SNYDERMAN: ...and Gabrielle Giffords , a congressowoman, because you -- again -- what -- exactly what Crystal just said, having a level one trauma center ...

    Ms. ELMENDORF: That's right .

    SNYDERMAN: ...that treats these things as a battlefield and gets people into the hospital...

    Ms. ELMENDORF: Mm-hmm.

    SNYDERMAN: ...aggressive management into the operating room has meant that these guys are sitting on this couch today and they aren't dead.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: Right.

    SNYDERMAN: It means that Gabrielle Giffords also, while her life has been saved, is looking at a long-term recovery, as we're talking about, eight, nine, 10 years out. This is the -- both sides of the coin of this kind of injury.

    LAUER: I think a lot of people were surprised, Doctor, that so soon after the gunshot wound that she received, Gabrielle Giffords was moved from a regular hospital to a rehab center.

    SNYDERMAN: Right.

    LAUER: They -- I guess the goal here is to get to the rehab as quickly as possible.

    SNYDERMAN: Well, rehab starts on day one, as soon as you come out of your coma.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: Right. Day one .

    SNYDERMAN: And I 'm sure these guys will attest to that.

    Mr. FERRANDO: Yeah.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: Day one.

    Mr. FERRANDO: Right off the bat.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: And, you know, you go through being so tired, very tired. You got to listen to your body, get plenty of rest, lots of rest and really force yourself to get some nutrition. And it's a long road.

    SNYDERMAN: Dangling legs, asking what is this, what is this color, describe this cup.

    Mr. FERRANDO: Yeah.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

    SNYDERMAN: I mean, every little thing in this blank slate idea.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: For me, they almost amputated my left arm because I had a degloving that happened. I had glass in there. They had to completely redo things. They did a skin grafting off of my left thigh and moved it to my arm. And, you know, it just was one of those where you had so much recovery. Not just the traumatic brain injury .

    LAUER:

    SNYDERMAN: The cool thing, we didn't even know that the human brain could do this 20 years ago.

    LAUER: Well...

    SNYDERMAN: This is the big new wonderful frontier, and these guys are living testaments to how far we've come.

    LAUER: Good for both of you.

    Mr. FERRANDO: Yeah.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: You know, the whole procedure, the decompressive craniectomy that was done, really contributed to, you know, my recovery.

    LAUER: Yeah. Well, we're happy for both of you.

    Mr. FERRANDO: Oh, thank you very much .

    LAUER: And it's nice of you to both share your stories. We appreciate it.

    Ms. ELMENDORF: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: Thank you so much .

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