Fran Rooker's 10-year-old son, Jason, was playing in the backyard when tragedy struck. A fluke accident caused Jason to be strangled, depriving him of oxygen for about 10 minutes. The boy survived the accident, but the injury to his brain left him a quadriplegic and unable to communicate. Rooker spent the next year by her son’s side in a hospital and children’s rehabilitation center, determined to help her son rebuild his life. But she soon discovered there were no services to help her do that in their rural community near Roanoke, Virginia.
Fifteen months after the injury, and two months before his 12th birthday, Jason died in his sleep. While caring for Jason, Rooker had met other families whose loved ones had suffered similar injury. She saw families break up, couples get divorced and siblings go into denial about the condition of their brother or sister. “It had become my life’s work to help Jason. After he died, we decided to do something to help other people and their families who struggle to live with this disability,” she says.
Rooker and her husband, Greg, a former community newspaper owner and publisher, founded the Jason Foundation as a resource that families could call on for help. Then they connected with Brain Injury Services, Inc., in Northern Virginia to mentor staff there in establishing a similar organization in their region. The Rookers founded Brain Injury Services of Southwest Virginia to provide critically needed, community-based case management and other services that support people living with brain injury to resume lives as contributing members of their families and communities. Today, the organization employs 12 case managers and life-skills trainers and serves more than 300 families each year in an 11,000-square-mile area of the state.
In recognition of her efforts to improve the lives of people and families struggling with the disability of brain injury in an area of the country where there were no such services, Rooker was named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities.
Community Health Leaders National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin said the selection committee honored Rooker for “her commitment and generous spirit to turn a personal tragedy into a living legacy for her son that can mean the difference between surviving brain injuries and conditions and being able to live meaningful lives,” Griffin said.
“Brain injury is probably the most misunderstood, misdiagnosed and heavily under-funded disability. More people are living after a brain injury, and we are seeing it in near-epidemic proportions because of what’s happening to our military personnel,” Rooker said, noting the more than 156,000 people living with long-term challenges due to brain injury in Virginia alone. Many of the rehabilitative services that brain injury survivors need, Rooker points out, are not covered by Medicaid, Medicare or private insurance. This includes rehabilitation for neurobehavioral issues, which affect thousands of Virginians living with this disability, and for which there are only 40 beds available in facilities across the state.
Rooker is now expanding the reach of her work by collaborating with specialists from Virginia universities on the development of a telehealth pilot project to provide brain injury survivors in rural settings with rehabilitative resources, including neurocognitive and neurobehavioral therapies.
The parent of a child with a brain injury who benefited from Rooker’s support services says the treatment his daughter received has been life-changing. “Fran Rooker was not able to save her child, but she helped save mine,” said P. Brent Brown. In 1999, Heather Brown lay in a hospital bed, paralyzed on one side of her body and in a deep coma. “The treating neurosurgeon tried to prepare my wife and me to accept that our daughter’s brain injury might require her to spend the rest of her life in a nursing home,” Brown says. “In May 2006, Heather graduated from Hollins University with a B.S. in Psychology.”