Astronaut talks about wife’s brain injuries at Scripps conference in La Jolla

By Steven Mihailovich

Capt. Mark Kelly is a bona fide American hero. He commanded four space shuttle missions, including the Endeavor’s final voyage, flew 39 combat missions over Iraq during the Gulf War, and has logged more than 6,000 flight hours as a Navy pilot.

As the keynote speaker at the eighth annual Brain Injury Rehabilitation Conference, March 22-23, Kelly was qualified to address the roomful of physicians, neurosurgeons, therapists and other brain injury specialists for another reason.

Kelly is the husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the head during the attempted assassination on Jan. 8, 2011. Talking about that topic forced Kelly to choke up and hold back tears a couple of times during his hour-long presentation.

“As Gaby entered Congress for the first time in 2007, I thought I had the risky job,” Kelly told the audience. “I’d flown 39 combat missions. I’d landed on an aircraft carrier nearly 400 times. By that point in my career, I’d flown two flights into space already. I thought I had the risky job. But as it would turn out, Gaby is the one who would nearly lose her life serving her country.”

In the speech, the toughness Kelly showed during his daring exploits and rigorous, and often dangerous, training contrasted with the vulnerability he experienced in helping his wife through the ongoing recovery. The audience was often riveted hearing this paragon of American courage and stoicism talk about feeling nearly helpless at times.

“On Jan. 8, 2011, there was no countdown clock,” Kelly said. “For the big events in my life, like a space flight or a combat mission, they normally start at a specific time. With a space flight, you even have a countdown clock going toward zero. But on Jan. 8, the day Gaby was injured, there was no clock. Just the ringing of my phone when I got a call that put me on this trajectory — this crazy wild ride where I was going to have make an enormous amount of decisions and not really knowing anywhere it’s going to be going ... (I) hung up and then I started trying to figure out, OK, what I do now?”

Kelly wove intricate details of glorious victories, horrific setbacks and excruciating doubts into a message of hope and perseverance that reverberated with an audience that daily treats patients suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Of course, getting shot through the head isn’t the only source of TBI, and the 1.7 million annual cases in the United States and more than 300,000 sports-related concussions each year attest to that fact.

The two-day conference was held at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort and Spa and hosted by the Rehabilitation Center at Scripps Memorial Hospital. Mild traumatic brain injury or concussion, especially in sports and in youth, as well as the use of robotics for TBI were the major themes this year.

The annual conference has grown from almost 30, mostly local attendees in 2006, to more than 200 participants from around the world this year, according to Michael Lopatz, medical director of the Scripps Medical Rehabilitation Center and Brain Injury Program.

Top specialists from across the country spoke about the latest advances and techniques in research and treatment, including Dr. Sanjay Ghosh, neurosurgeon at Scripps La Jolla Trauma Center, who spoke about modern care of severe TBI in intensive care units and trauma centers.

With thousands of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from TBI and the publicity surrounding tragedies such as the suicide of former San Diego Charger Junior Seau and the shooting of Giffords, the spotlight is squarely on TBI like never before.

“I think that the increased awareness in TBI is extremely important,” Lopatz said. “Raising awareness about traumatic brain injury, especially for prevention of repeated concussions, and now what we’re learning (about) the long-term consequences of that, things that have been suggested to be the issues in some of our football players, these are the kinds of increasing awareness that I think is very positive and may help to save lives down the line.”