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Montana Has One of Highest Rates of Brain Injury-Related Fatalities in U.S.

UM’s Neural Injury Center holds conference in Whitefish focused on veterans, athletes

Garrett Bussiere had been preparing his entire life to play professional baseball.

But that lifelong dream came to a sudden and tragic end in July 2006 when he was hit in the head with a 95-mile-per-hour pitch. More than a decade later, Bussiere can still remember how the lights in the stadium and the sound of his cleats on the dugout floor seemed particularly annoying as he slowly walked back to the dugout. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury.

“I couldn’t even describe to the medics what I was experiencing,” he said.

Bussiere was one of the keynote speakers at a conference at Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish on July 17 hosted by the University of Montana’s Neural Injury Center. The Neural Injury Center was established in 2014 to provide screening and clinical services to student athletes, veterans and others who have suffered from brain or spinal cord injuries that might be interfering with their life or education.

In the last year, the center has held three different conferences in Billings, Missoula and now Whitefish. The Whitefish conference featured leading traumatic brain-injury experts including UM’s Dr. Bill Rosen and Professor Neil T. Shepard of the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science in Minnesota. Other speakers included Justin Buls, Kalispell site director for Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana, and Rachel Zeider, physiatrist and co-medical director of Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s Neuroscience and Spine Institute.

“We want to make sure people who have suffered from a traumatic brain injury have this information because it can impact their life,” said Cindi Laukes, director and chief operating officer of the Neural Injury Center.

Laukes said studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that Montana usually has more fatal traumatic brain injuries than most other states. Laukes said there are a number of reasons for that, including the size of the agricultural industry (which can often include dangerous work), recreational activities and the high number of veterans in the state. An estimated 2.8 million people suffer from traumatic brain injuries every year in the U.S., and officials said the real figure is likely higher because some injuries go unreported or unaddressed.

Last week’s event featured seminars that focused on both veterans and athletes.

Shepard, the professor from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, gave a presentation on the connections between traumatic brain injuries and long-lasting dizziness.

During the lunch hour, Bussiere talked about the 2006 head injury that ended his baseball career when he was playing for a minor-league affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. He grew determined to help other people suffering from traumatic brain injuries, so he went back to school to study them. He eventually went on to found Healing Your Head, a company that helps people recovering from brain-related injuries.

“As one opportunity departed, another one arrived,” he said of his experience.