Marathon fundraiser boosts brain injury research

8 Dec 2017 - 15:30

Pictured left to right: Professor Anthony Figaji, Karen Brownie, Meagen Herr, Prof Graham Fieggen, Matthew Brownie

The brain is the most complex organ in the body and yet our understanding of it remains very limited.

Coping with a family member who has suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) is enough to emotionally paralyse the most resilient of us. Recovering from TBI can be slow and complex, as the extent of recovery can be difficult to predict. For family members, this can also be very traumatic when having to support loved ones through the day-to-day challenges they face.

Karen Brownie and her close circle of friends and family have, however, turned this journey into an experience of hope, raising funds to support research to improve our understanding of TBI.

“My father was injured in a motorbike accident on 31 December last year and was hospitalised with traumatic brain injury,” she explains. He spent three weeks in intensive care and was in rehab at Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital for many months before he was able to go home.

Traumatic brain injury is most commonly caused by accidents (such as motor vehicle accidents or falls) or assaults, and is one of the major causes of unnatural death in South Africa – especially in the Western Cape where numbers of road accidents and incidents of violence are high. The brain can take up to two years to recover from trauma, and often, if the damage was severe, there could be permanent disability, with enormous personal and financial costs to family, and the economy.

“Although he has received really good care, my father’s recuperation has been slow, but encouraging, and there is no certainty about his ultimate recovery,” says Brownie. “We felt we needed to do something to change this, and raise money to support research on TBI.”

Raising this money was made possible literally through the sweat of her husband, Matthew, and friend, Meagen Herr, who decided to run the Cape Town Marathon to raise funds for TBI research. Brownie is full of praise for Matthew, who had never run more than 10km before, and Herr, who had run only one marathon many years ago.

Their efforts moved many to donate to their cause. “We were overwhelmed by the generosity of friends and colleagues,” says Matthew, with the amount collected exceeding expectation.

The family decided to use the funds to support TBI research at UCT, and Professors Anthony Figaji and Graham Fieggen were on hand to accept a cheque for R205 000 on behalf of UCT in a heartwarming exchange with the family.

Figaji, head of the Paediatric Neurosurgery Unit at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, is a world-renowned expert in this field. President of the International Neurotrauma Society, he knows very well the global impact of an injury to the head. In real terms it is one of the leading causes of premature death and disability in otherwise young and healthy people.

The incident rates of head injury in Africa are the highest in the world, but even though it is a problem at least as big as the HIV and tuberculosis epidemics, it has much less visibility – support for clinical care and research from local and international agencies is a small fraction of what HIV and tuberculosis receives. It is extremely difficult to get projects funded for head injury research or care. Unsurprisingly, it is often referred to as the "neglected epidemic".

“As a country, we should be leading the field in expertise and research,” says Figaji. “Instead, the rates of death and disability in South Africa are unacceptably high.

“There is no doubt we can do much better,” he adds, “so this fundraising effort is a breath of fresh air – the money raised will go to developing better tools for understanding the injured brain and developing therapies to maximise the chances of a patient recovering. It is an African priority and Africa can be leading the way forward, for breakthroughs in head injury care and understanding of the brain."

“This donation fits very well with our current fundraising priorities,” comments Fieggen, head of the neurosurgery at UCT.

“We are establishing a state-of-the-art Neuroscience Institute (NI) at UCT, to advance care and transform research and teaching in the neurosciences. With expertise in neurosurgery, neurology, neuropsychology, neuropsychiatry and neuroimaging, we will be able to work more closely with colleagues to improve our understanding of brain function,” he says.

"As a partnership with Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH) and Red Cross Children’s Hospital, the NI will foster collaboration in the research and treatment of a number of neurological disorders on our continent, with improving the treatment of brain trauma being one of our priorities. The institute will include other disciplines such as engineering, the arts and disability studies, creating an interdisciplinary environment where new approaches to important conditions such as trauma, stroke, epilepsy and mental health will be fostered.”

For the Brownie family and team, this is not the end of their fundraising for TBI.

“People are incredibly generous when they are given a good cause to support, so I see no reason why we can’t grow our fundraising base each year. I would like to explore ways in which we can continue to support TBI and have an annual fundraiser,” says Matthew. 

UCT has built a programme of clinical care and research around advanced monitoring of the brain, Figaji explains. In doing so, it has become a world-leading centre for research in TBI. The goal now is to build on this platform and use the advanced understanding of the brain to improve care in places that do not have access to this technology.

“A deeper understanding of the mechanisms of brain injury will help us understand what will and will not work for treatment, so that we use the right therapies wherever the patient is being treated,” he says.

The aim is to improve the outcome after head injury across South Africa, and to start playing a leadership role in the rest of the continent.