Brain Injury Alliance turns to private fundraisers after state budget cuts

The Brain Injury Alliance of Montana raised about $30,000 for its help line during a fundraiser at Snowbowl. (Courtesy photo)

Because of budget cuts to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services earlier this year, many organizations and programs related to brain injury have struggled to provide services or have closed their doors.

The Brain Injury Alliance of Montana lost about $100,000 in funding for its Brain Injury Help Line, the alliance’s largest program. In fact, executive director John Bigart III said that the money comprised about half of the alliance’s annual budget.

“Overnight, we lost that funding and it turned us upside down a little bit at first and we had to reorganize and restructure,” Bigart said.

The help line provides one-on-one guidance for traumatic brain injury patients and directs them to resources, therapy groups, rehabilitation facilities and literature. The program also donates about 5,000 helmets each year through giveaways.

When it comes to understanding a brain injury, it can take some time to know how the injury will affect an individual.

“If someone breaks a leg and they go to the doctor, it doesn’t matter how you break that leg. There could be a hundred different ways, but doctors always have a really clear plan of treatment for proper recovery,” Bigart said. “But for brain injury, it’s almost never the case.”

In a state that toggles between second and third in the nation per capita for brain injury related deaths, Bigart said that TBI rehabilitation facilities are crucial. Because of budget cuts, TBI facilities like the Community Bridges program at Missoula’s Community Medical Center and others around the state have closed or merged into other outpatient rehabilitation programs.

“Right now in the state of Montana, there are no outpatient TBI treatment facilities and that is a huge, huge deal,” Bigart said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of mental health issues that can be associated with TBI, whether that’s minor or major, and our big fear is if these folks aren’t being treated, what are going to be the issues in the short term and long term?”

The Snowbowl event was the alliance’s first fundraiser since losing state funding, but more will be needed to fill the $100,000 gap. (Courtesy photo)

On Saturday, the alliance hosted the Big Sky Challenge Hike at Montana Snowbowl Ski & Summer Resort to raise funds for help line operations. Bigart hopes it can become a yearly tradition.

Around 100 participants hiked on four different loops ranging from .8 miles to 10 miles and could even hike a virtual reality loop. The event raised about $30,000 and will help keep the support line up and running for the next six months.

Staff for the help line are usually licensed clinical social workers and certified brain injury specialists, and having more people answering phones means more people get help, Bigart said.

The hike was a great way to show local support for brain injury survivors, with one person flying in from North Carolina to get involved.

“They were all super excited and they said they were going to participate again next year and invite friends, families and coworkers to come join us too,” Bigart said.

In late October, the alliance will also host the Unmasking Brain Injury in Montana Masquerade Ball at the Heritage Hall at Fort Missoula to raise additional funds.

“We’re hoping potentially with the 2019 legislative session that maybe they’ll reinstate that funding, and if they don’t we’ll just continue to do these events,” Bigart said.

While the alliance raises money, other community members in Missoula are hosting their own support groups for those who have experienced brain injuries.

Jim Mickelson has hosted the Puzzle Club every Saturday for 19 years. People affected by brain injury can meet, talk, and get advice on services and resources through guest speakers and others.

Mickelson was a full-time firefighter in the early 1990s, and suffered a coma after a train hit a firetruck he was driving. Afterwards, he had to learn how to walk and talk again, all with the help of local rehabilitation programs and facilities like Community Bridges and St. Patrick Hospital.

“There’s never a short fix to brain injuries and strokes,” Mickelson said. “It takes a long time and I spend a lot of time talking about repetition. It takes a lot of training, just like a kid trying to learn to ride his bicycle. He took a lot of falls before learning how to ride a bicycle.”

Mickelson went through the Community Bridges rehabilitation program and physical therapy in 1999, and volunteers at Community Medical Center three times a week talking to brain injury and stroke patients.

Douglas Combs, a member of the Brain Injury Alliance of Montana board of directors, suffered a stroke in 2006 and was paralyzed on the right side of his body.

He leads the St. Patrick stroke support group that meets every month, and knows the importance of services and treatment facilities. He spent a month and a half in St. Patrick’s inpatient rehabilitation program before it was discontinued a few years ago.

“It’s much harder, because you yourself don’t know what to do to come back and make the new ways to function work,” Combs said. “Once you have an injury that affects your mental capacity, you need therapy for the rest of your life.”

Some programs like the St. Patrick outpatient rehabilitation services and New Directions Wellness Center through the University of Montana are going strong, and are able to assist TBI patients with the tools that they have.

“Specific to traumatic brain injury, we serve that population here at the clinic, because we have neuro rehab specialists here, so we work with that population, but it’s not a specific traumatic brain injury center with all of those other skills and tools that are needed,” New Directions Wellness Center gym coordinator Molly Blair said.

Having facilities and programs like the alliance that focus solely on brain injury are still an asset Montana needs to try and retain, Bigart said. The helpline has assisted thousands of people who need guidance to their next steps to treatment, and the alliance serves to bridge that gap, he said.

“On average, 30 people a day are impacted by some type of brain injury,” Bigart said. “We live in a state where we work hard and play hard and because of that, all of our outdoor sports, our farming, our ranching, our construction and everything that we do, there’s consequences to that. There’s a huge, huge population of individuals who have been impacted with brain injury. With these big state budget cuts, it’s absolutely affected them getting the services and the assistance they need just to be able to function.”