Warringtons' efforts earn recognition

Couple puts personal experience to work to prevent brain injuries

Posted: Friday, April 16, 2004

Richard and Mary Warrington have spent years working to increase awareness of brain injuries.

Next week, the Alaska Chapter of the American Red Cross will return the favor, highlighting the Kenai couple's efforts in front of the rest of the state.

The Warringtons will receive the educator award at the agency's annual Real Hero Awards Breakfast on Tuesday.

Richard and Mary have spent years dealing with brain injuries in their private lives.

Two months after his high school graduation, Richard was in a motorcycle accident in Colorado. He spent a month in a coma and woke up with no memories of his former life, family or education. After two brain surgeries -- one to repair what damage could be fixed and one to put a metal plate in his head -- he returned to his family's home, where he had to relearn everything, from dressing and tying his shoes to interacting with other people and getting to know his loved ones.

Richard was fortunate to live in Colorado at the time, a state that had resources for citizens dealing with brain injuries. He got into a rehabilitation program, where he started leather work as therapy and learned to identify the specific challenges accompanying his particular injury.

When he moved to Alaska in 1986, he found a state with no such resources. But he did meet Mary, a woman familiar with the challenges of his life.

When she was a child, two of Mary's brothers also suffered brain injuries.

"I grew up understanding people with brain injuries," she said.

Mary's husband had died when his car was hit by a drunk driver, and she and Richard met at a dance.

"She could tell I had a brain injury by the way I talk, my cognitive impairment," he said.

"I understood Rick well," she said.

Since then, the couple has spent several years working to help the general public understand Richard and people with similar disabilities.

Richard started a brain injury support group in Kenai in 1993, and, in 1996, Richard and Mary were appointed ambassadors by the Brain Injury Association of America.

They also began the Brain Injury Prevention Awareness Walk and Barbecue in Kenai that year, which is held each year the Saturday after Memorial Day.

Together, they began lobbying government agencies to further promote awareness of the most common injury in America.

They participate in parades, health fairs and symposiums.

They've spoken to the Alaska Legislature, the Alaska Mental Health Board, the Kenai and Soldotna city councils and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

But one of the most important groups the Warringtons speak to -- and the effort for which they are receiving the Red Cross award -- is students.

The couple visits middle and high school health and science classes to discuss brain injury prevention with a presentation called "Don't be a Dum Dum: Brain Injury Prevention." In an attempt to "teach to the senses," the couple shows posters and videos and tells stories; Richard lets students feel the spot on his head where the plate covers his injury; and they hand out Dum Dum Pop suckers, helping drive the point home with candy.

Among the facts the Warringtons share with students are:

n Alaska has the highest rate of brain injuries in the nation.

n Brain injuries are permanent, occurring about once every 21 seconds in the country (down from once every 15 seconds just a few years ago).

n Traumatic brain injury is the leading cause of death and disability in children and young adults.

n Young men between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest rate of injuries.

n A severe brain injury survivor faces five to 10 years of intensive services and more than $4 million in lifetime costs.

The couple encourages students to be aware of their surroundings and take appropriate cautions to avoid brain injury, be it wearing a helmet while biking and skating, donning weather-appropriate shoes to avoid falls or driving without the impairments of alcohol, drugs or sleepiness.

The couple also talks about the severe effects of shaken baby syndrome, a form of traumatic brain injury.

Mostly, though, they talk about their personal experiences.

"I don't remember my 12 years of education, playing in the band, wrestling," Richard said. "I know from looking in my yearbook and seeing the medals and ribbons, but I don't remember how I got them."

"The accident wiped all that out, and he explains that to the kids," Mary said. "Imagine all that you've learned: Your parents potty-trained you, taught you to tie your shoes, dress, comb your hair, brush your teeth. All that's wiped out at one time. You don't know your grandma, your mom and dad. You have to relearn all those things."

Finally, the Warringtons show students MRIs of various brain defects -- holes caused by injury or drug use, from cocaine and heroin to marijuana and alcohol.

"The fire department teaches kids safety when they're in elementary school, but when they're in middle school and high school, they disregard it," Richard said. "Many people believe (brain injury) is random, like lightening striking. It's not.

"Most is preventable."

The Warringtons will receive their award at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage. Admission is by invitation only.

They will continue their work to promote awareness of brain injury prevention with the walk and barbecue in Kenai on June 5.

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