Brain Awareness: Hux devoted to helping individuals with traumatic brain injuries

Karen Hux

Brain Awareness: Hux devoted to helping individuals with traumatic brain injuries

20 Mar 2017    By Kelcey Buck

Each March, the Brain Injury Association of America observes Brain Injury Awareness Month. At the same time, the Society for Neuroscience recognized Brain Awareness Week March 13-19. In conjunction with these two annual events, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders is highlighting the work of three faculty members whose research and expertise focuses on brain development, injuries and disorders. 

Kristy Weissling, who is an associate professor of practice as well as the clinic coordinator for the speech and language services in the Barkley Speech Language and Hearing Clinic, summarized the importance of the brain:

“People don’t understand that it’s really their brain that is who they are. You can look in the mirror and see your face, or hear your voice when you talk, and think, ‘Oh, that’s me,’ but the thing that gives your face tone and gives you your mannerisms is your brain. Your voice and how it functions is mediated by your brain. Your thoughts and ability to communicate, everything is mediated by your brain. It’s who you are, and yet we sometimes take it so for granted. We don’t think about, ‘If this affects my brain, it’s going to profoundly affect who I am as a person because it’s going to affect my thought patterns, my language, my ability to communicate, and all these other things.’”

Karen Hux, professor

For Karen Hux, a career spent studying and treating individuals with traumatic brain injuries began as a speech-language pathology clinician at a rehab facility in New Jersey. When the facility decided to add a pediatric brain injury program, Hux was called upon to treat the adolescents with brain injuries, some as young as 10 years old.

That experience sparked her interest in traumatic brain injuries and motivated her to pursue her doctorate in speech-language pathology, focusing on brain injuries, as well as aphasia, which is a language impairment caused by an injury to the brain. 

“There’s a lot more attention to brain injury now than there ever was before,” Hux said. “I’ve been saying for years that it’s a common event. People are recognizing that now.” 

Hux points out that part of the problem in diagnosing brain injuries is making the initial connection between lingering problems and the event that caused the injury. A person may feel better within a few days of hitting his or her head. When there are problems that don’t resolve, Hux says most people attribute those to something else, rather than recognizing that an injury to the brain occurred.

Still, progress is being made, particularly in the immediate treatment of brain injuries to relieve the pressure.

“Medical treatment for brain injury has gotten a lot better,” Hux said. “That usually means that an individual’s outward appearance looks fine, which makes this a hidden disability. Nobody can see that there’s something on the inside that doesn’t work the same way as everybody else. They may look normal, but they’re not going to be the same as they were before, they’re not going to feel normal.

“Part of the problem is you lose your identity. Suddenly, the things you are good at are not the same as the things you used to be good at – it’s a real identity shift. You have to change the way you do everything.” 

A certified speech-language pathologist, Hux’s work with individuals with brain injuries has focused on the cognitive and language problems resulting from those injuries. The cognitive issues typically affect memory, attention, perceptual problems that make processing visual information difficult, and executive functioning, or the ability to solve problems when something doesn’t go as planned. The language issues are not the ability to understand language, but rather the ability to efficiently process information as it is presented.

“Everything takes more cognitive exertion to figure out, ‘How am I going to get this done?’” Hux said. “When we talk about students with brain injuries, for every one hour that a student without a brain injury has to study, it’s probably four hours for a student with a brain injury just to master the same information. That’s exhausting.”

Hux’s work also extends to a brain injury support group that she coordinates along with Gina Simanek, who is the assistant for the Dean of Students at Nebraska, while also serving as the intake and referral specialist for the Brain Injury Alliance of Nebraska. The group, which meets from 6:30-8:30 p.m. the second Friday of each month, is open to anyone – brain injury survivors, family members, friends.

“We started out being a group for adolescent survivors because they didn’t have any group,” Hux said. “But then the adolescents grew up and they didn’t want to leave the group so we opened it up to any age but kept the emphasis that we would go out and have fun together.”

Sometimes an outside speaker comes to visit the group. Sometimes the group just meets at the Barkley Memorial Center on East Campus and talks with each other. Other nights there is a specific activity planned – bowling, a potluck at someone’s house, miniature golfing, attending a baseball game. No matter what the designated activity is, the focus of the meetings is always on socializing and supporting one another.

“It is an incredibly supportive group of people,” Hux said. “At this point, they contact each other during the month – which is EXACTLY what we want – so that they give each other support. We’re not trying to do therapy in the support group. We’re trying to be supportive.” 

Asked what she thinks is one of the biggest misconceptions about brain injuries, Hux doesn’t hesitate to recognize the effects of mild injuries.

“Mild injuries need to be taken seriously,” Hux said. “Lots of people with mild brain injuries recover just fine, but for those who don’t it can be life-changing. You’re not the same after a brain injury.”

Read the other two Brain Awareness stories about assistant professor YingYing Wang's brain imaging research into reading difficulties and associate professor of practice Kristy Weissling's work with Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and individuals with aphasia.

Special Education and Communication Disorders