SEATTLE—Tammy Cooper-Woodrich, Nooksack, knows first-hand the life challenges that can result from brain injury. She also knows it’s possible to overcome those challenges and find employment, succeed at work and live independently.
“I have several family members and several clients that have had traumatic brain injuries,” Cooper-Woodrich said. “I am well aware of the many barriers [faced by] those that have been affected. So many services are available for those affected. I know this will be very rewarding.”
Cooper-Woodrich is a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the North Intertribal Vocational Rehabilitation Program, which serves the Nooksack, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Swinomish, Tulalip and Upper Skagit peoples in Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties. She is also a traditional storyteller and has served on the Nooksack Tribal Council and the Northwest Indian College Board of Trustees.
The 25-member brain injury council was created by state legislation in 2007 to “develop a comprehensive statewide plan to address the needs of individuals with traumatic brain injuries.” The purpose of the council is also to advise the governor, the legislature and the secretary of Social and Health Services “on the best ways to create and provide an array of coordinated, accessible services and supports,” which promote optimal quality of life for all individuals—survivors and family members—affected by traumatic brain injury.
Council members are not compensated for serving on the council, but may be reimbursed for expenses related to participating in council meetings. All council meetings are open to the public.
The legislation establishing the council defines traumatic brain injury as “injury to the brain caused by physical trauma resulting from, but not limited to, incidents involving motor vehicles, sporting events, falls, and physical assaults.”
According to the council website (www.tbiwashington.org), traumatic brain injury can impair abstract thinking, attention, behavior, cognition, information processing, judgment, memory, motor abilities, physical functions, problem solving, and reasoning.
According to the council, nearly 123,750 Washington residents live with traumatic brain injury-related disabilities. Every year, there are about 5,500 traumatic brain injury hospitalizations in Washington state; about 1,300 people die.
The leading causes of traumatic brain injury deaths are falls, firearms, and “transport-related” injuries—injuries involving motor-vehicle occupants, pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists, according to the council. In Washington state, more people age 65 and older are hospitalized for injuries caused by falls than the number of people of all ages hospitalized because of motor-vehicle crashes. Falls are the leading cause of fatal traumatic brain injury among people age 75 and older in Washington state, according to the council.
Besides connecting people with services and support, the council also educates the public on how to prevent brain injury, advocates for sports concussion prevention, provides resources for caregivers, and promotes fall-prevention programs for older residents.
Families have told the council that more education is needed so the public knows how to better interact with individuals who have sustained a brain injury. For example, the wife of a survivor said brain injury does not mean mental illness or lack of intelligence, and no one should ever talk down to a traumatic brain injury survivor. It may take time for the survivor to process or recall information, but she said it is an opportunity for those engaging to listen at a slower pace, offering a great opportunity for awareness of others and themselves.
A mother of a child who had a traumatic brain injury that resulted in behavioral problems told the council, “I would like people to take [traumatic brain injury] seriously. It is not just an excuse for behavior and it really exists and affects things long-term … It can show itself in all kinds of ways and it is unpredictable and people need to have compassion and patience with someone who has had a TBI.”
Cooper-Woodrich is familiar with such work. At the North Intertribal Vocational Rehabilitation Program, she and other staff members work with clients with a wide range of physical and mental challenges. She and other staff members evaluate those challenges, help clients choose an employment goal which best suits their abilities and interests, identify barriers to successful employment, help clients determine the steps needed to reach their employment goals, and help coordinate services needed to obtain successful employment.
The North Intertribal program provides assistive devices, education assistance, medical referrals, mental health counseling, transportation assistance, vocational training and job search assistance. The program also provides advocacy and coordination with other agencies and programs.
Cooper-Woodrich is enthusiastic about the opportunity to make a difference statewide. “I am so glad for this appointment,” she said. “I will be looking to reach out to Native American communities to let them know that I am representing the Native voices of those affected with traumatic brain injury. I know that all Tribes in Washington have always taken good care of their people and [I] want them to know that they are represented at the state level. Whatcom County has a TBI committee and [I] am looking forward to seeing the resources available in all counties.”