The Longevity Project: Traumatic Brain Injuries in the High Country
The Aspen Times
Editor’s note: This is the first of a weekly series The Longevity Project, a collaboration between The Aspen Times and Post Independent.
Many individuals who experience traumatic brain injuries (TBI) undergo what is called perseveration, where they often repeat words or phrases. For Carbondale resident Darryl Fuller, 52, the word he clings to is “nature.”
“Sometimes he calls me nature,” Darryl’s wife, Susan Jordan, said. “Sometimes he calls other people nature. Sometimes he just uses it to fill in.”
In the early stages following Fuller’s TBI, the word clung to was “determination.” These words choices seem to be in line with the kind of person Darryl Fuller is.
He and Susan have been living in Carbondale for over 20 years. They moved here in 2000, when Darryl took a job at Colorado Rocky Mountain School as the outdoor programming director, a title he’s held since he moved here.
Before the accident that led to Darryl’s TBI, on a typical weekend, Darryl and Susan would spend it biking or skiing, enjoying all the things living in the mountains has to offer.
A love of nature seems to have carved out a career and lifestyle for Darryl.
Darryl Fuller’s traumatic brain injury
On May 21, 2022, Darryl was in a backcountry skiing accident on Cathedral Peak. He was with a friend, trying to enjoy one of the last snow storms of the season.
While walking up the peak, Darryl slid on a patch of rocks and lost a ski. He was not injured at this point. After he fell the first time, he and his friend decided to descend the peak, making their way back down the way they had come up.
They were both being cautious and wearing protective gear, including helmets. Darryl is an experienced skier and outdoorsman, given his long career as an outdoor program director. Still, accidents can happen to the most experienced outdoor adventurers, even those who make safety a priority.
It was on their way back down the peak that Darryl fell again, sliding an estimated 1,000 feet. His friend found him lying unconscious.
Before Darryl’s friend was able to make it to him safely, others who witnessed his fall were able to reach him.
“The miracle was that there were two people, a father and a son hiking at the Cathedral Lakes Trail on May 21. Like, who does that?” said Susan. “Even locals don’t really do that.”
Darryl was airlifted to Aspen Valley Hospital, then transferred to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction. According to Susan, he almost didn’t make it.
“He was covered with blood, his eyes were slow and he was intubated. He couldn’t talk. He was not conscious,” Susan said about her first time seeing her husband.
Darryl had broken his leg, tore the upper side of his left eye, and endured a traumatic brain injury.
He moved from St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction to Craig Hospital in Denver, where he and Susan have been since July 6.
Traumatic Brain Injuries in the High Country
Darryl is one of 1.5 million people diagnosed with a TBI this year, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number of people living with TBIs in the United States nearly equals the entire population of Colorado. According to Aspen Valley Hospital, an estimated 5.3 million adults and children living in the United States are suffering from permanent brain injuries. The U.S. Census from 2021 estimates the population of Colorado at 5.8 million.
Each year, Aspen Valley Hospital sees an estimated 2,000 people who come in with concerns of brain injuries. Concussion is the most frequent diagnosis for those patients, but even a mild concussion can lead to lasting impacts.
Austin Colbert, the sports editor and lead photographer for The Aspen Times, endured a mild concussion a handful of years ago and still has lingering symptoms.
“I had a very light, insignificant knock on the head, and I’m still dealing with symptoms five years later.” Colbert said. “It impacts your life.”
Dr. John Hughes, who owns Aspen Integrative Medicine, described a TBI as “a bomb that explodes in the brain.” This “bomb” often goes undetected on CT or MRI scans, which makes the treatment for TBI all the more challenging.
The most common events that lead to TBIs are falls, car collisions, combative injuries or sports-related injuries. People living in rural or mountainous regions are more likely to experience a TBI than those who live in urban or eastern regions.
With this, Colorado ranks ninth in the country for TBI-related fatalities and 13th for TBI-related hospitalizations, according to Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado.
A study from Craig Hospital estimates that Region 12 of Colorado, which consists of Pitkin, Eagle, Summit, Jackson and Grand counties, ranks No. 1 for TBIs when adjusted for the population.
Like the severity of TBIs, treatment and recovery for TBI patients varies.
“I tell my patients, it’s still going to be a six- to nine-month process, even a year before they might get back to some resemblance of normal and can say, ‘Hey, I have my identity back,’” said Dr. Hughes.
“I think everybody has to have those kinds of kind of long-term expectations.”
Golden nuggets of hope
For Darryl Fuller and Susan Jordan, every day seems to get a little better.
“Every little thing is just like this little golden nugget of hope,” said Susan.
He can read, write, do math problems and more — signs that Darryl is recovering. Conversing and walking are still challenging.
He and Susan pass the time between his treatments playing games or rolling around the hospital.
Both of them are currently not able to work. This, along with the cost of medical treatment, is why Darryl’s sister started a GoFundMe page that is still taking donations.
Susan also started a blog on Caringbridge in which she writes journal updates on his progress. She considers the blog a good way to keep people informed and hopes that it is something they can look back on in the future, when Darryl gets better.
For now, they are still in Craig Hospital. The release date always seems to change, depending on the fluctuating recovery process.
Susan hopes Darryl will be treated in more of a residential-style treatment facility soon.
“As much as we’d like to get home, he’s not ready to go home,” said Susan. “So, I am super hopeful that we’re going to get Darryl back to a very high level.
“Whatever’s left, we’ll just continue to work on whatever that is.”
Brain Health & Injury
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life. This year’s project will focus on the critical and relevant topic of brain health after injury.
Our panelists are experts in treating concussions and TBI. They will share the latest research, treatments, physical therapies and how concussions impact aging. Whether for themselves or someone they know, attendees will learn useful takeaways for optimizing brain health after injury.
WHEN: Nov. 10
WHERE: TACAW, The Arts Campus at Willits Willits
TIME: 5 p.m. Meet and Greet; 5:30-7 Panel Discussion
TICKETS: Can be purchased online at https://events.cmnm.org/e/longevity2022
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