Brain Injury Leads to Advocacy
As students head to college, mother-son team advocates for students, families and colleges to "Rail Against the Danger."
As Clark Jacobs, 21, of Kennesaw, Ga., went to sleep in his loft bed at Georgia Tech on Jan. 9, 2015, he had no idea the next year would be the most difficult of his life. He woke up that night with a headache, not remembering getting out of his bunk. Sick to his stomach, he thought he might be coming down with the flu. He called his parents that afternoon and his dad brought him home. He had a terrible headache and couldn’t turn his neck. By Sunday morning, he was becoming sensitive to light and his headache was worsening. His parents took him to Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Ga.
When Clark’s mother, Mariellen Jacobs, asked him if he could have fallen out of his bed, Clark responded that he thought he might have, pointing out a sore spot on the back of his head.
His dad looked at him. There was no broken skin, no blood, no bruising anywhere.
And then came the clincher.
“My bunk curtains were on the floor,” Clark told them.
At the hospital, it was discovered that Clark’s brain was bleeding, requiring emergency surgery. Even with the operation, there was a chance he would not survive. Clark spent the next two and a half months fighting for his life, minimally conscious, while also battling infections and blood clots.
Clark doesn’t remember any of this. He doesn’t remember falling. He doesn’t remember waking up. He doesn’t remember going to the hospital or doing inpatient therapy at the Shepherd Center. He only remembers being at home four months later, doing physical therapy and talking to his mom about how unbelievably common his type of accident is.
“I kept doing research online and seeing this number: 36,000,” Mariellen recalls. “That’s how many kids per year are injured in bunk and loft beds. These are largely preventable injuries that are bad enough for them to go to the ER, kids of all ages. But there’s a big spike between the ages of 18 and 21 – the prime college years.”
When Mariellen talked with the University System of Georgia (USG) about their policy on providing rails for bunk or loft beds, she was surprised to learn that there really was no universal policy regarding rails. She then talked with Sandra Neuse, associate vice chancellor for development and administration for USG. Neuse agreed to survey each campus’ policy and found vastly different arrangements. Some provide rails free of charge, and some don’t have them. The University of Georgia puts them on all beds, while Georgia Tech charges $25 per semester for them.
To educate students and parents about the need for rails, Mariellen and Clark started a nonprofit organization, Rail Against the Danger (RAD). They also are working with USG to provide free access to bed railings at all public colleges and universities in Georgia.
“Let’s be honest," Mariellen says. "Kids that age are risk takers, so if a student doesn’t want to have one, they’ll just remove it. So we’re approaching this as an awareness campaign, rather than as a requirement.”
More than a year and a half after his injury, Clark wants college students to know that one small step can prevent a catastrophic injury.
“I would say I know it seems really silly, but rails on your lofted bed or bunk bed could save your life,” Clark says. “It's not worth the risk.”
“Our goal is to spread awareness on every college campus in Georgia, and hopefully beyond the state, to highlight the danger of sleeping in bunk and loft beds,” Mariellen says. “Students need to protect themselves and not take the chance.”
They continue to work with Neuse to further spread awareness and develop solutions. This past spring, Neuse suggested that students would be more willing to use the rails if they were perceived as less of a safety feature and more integrated into the design of the bed. With that in mind, Mariellen approached Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson. With his support, the university is now considering making it a Capstone project where students design a bed with a built-in rail and safe ladder, build a prototype and present their designs to manufacturers as part of a class.
More than a year after his injury, Clark continues his rehabilitation in Shepherd Center’s Beyond Therapy® program.
“When I went to Beyond Therapy®, I was walking with a cane all the time, shaky, barely able to make it around,” Clark says. “And now I'm walking for, literally, miles with nothing, and that's a humongous leap forward. They kicked my butt for three hours at a time. It's crazy, but the results are so real.”
Clark is heading back to Georgia Tech this August to study for his mechanical engineering degree and has just re-entered Shepherd Pathways, Shepherd Center’s outpatient brain injury program, three days a week to help him prepare to go back to school.
“Clark is very fortunate to be here,” Mariellen says. “He's a miracle, and I can't say enough about how Shepherd Center helped. People say to me, ‘Is it really as good as they say?’ And I say ‘No, it’s way better than you can ever possibly imagine.’”
Click here to learn more about Rail Against the Danger.
Written by David Terraso
Photos by Phil Skinner
In the media
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.