Joanna Kinney was bike riding to her job as research assistant at a Harvard laboratory when a car struck her from behind.
The driver fled the scene leaving a blacked-out Kinney on the sidewalk.
Kinney, now a first-year medical student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS), doesn’t recall much about the accident, which occurred during the summer of 2012, but she does know this: She wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“I remember coming to in the ambulance thinking that I’m going to be brain dead,” says Kinney, who suffered a concussion.
It took Kinney a year to get the courage to ride again gradually working up to the challenge, this time, always with a helmet.
“I never wanted helmet hair,” Kinney says. “Now, I’ll yell at anyone to wear a helmet.”
At Rutgers, Kinney has found a more effective outlet than shouting to advocate for bike safety. This fall she joined the Brain Team, a public health initiative created by RWJMS students that teaches local elementary students all about head injuries and the importance of wearing a helmet.
The student group, launched in 2014, not only presents bike safety workshops in classrooms, it also raises funds through bake sales and donations providing helmets to children unable to afford them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 384 children die annually from bicycle crashes and more than 450,000 are treated in emergency departments for bike related injuries, with head injury the most common cause of death and serious disability. Surveys have found that less than half of children ages 5-14 wear helmets while bike riding.
Amanda Herrmann, a second-year RWJMS student and founding Brain Team member, hopes the Brain Team campaign can help change these grim statistics.
“This is such a malleable age group,” says Herrmann, who before entering medical school spent two years working for the National Institute of Health on traumatic brain injury and stroke research. “Early intervention is really just the best way to address a problem like this.”
Partnered with the Epilepsy Foundation of New Jersey, the Brain Team prides itself on adapting and developing a curriculum that makes learning interactive and fun.
A popular experiment with elementary students is to place an egg in a plastic bag and drop it on the floor, demonstrating what could happen if you don’t wear a helmet and fall off your bike.
“We try not to let it get too dark with the kids,” says Colleen Stalter, also a second-year RWJMS student and founding Brain Team member. “But it’s very visual and you’re like WOW!”
The experiment is then redone, but this time the egg is covered in bubble wrap, keeping with the helmet-safety theme. The Brain Team then builds on that visual passing around actual human skulls on loan from the medical school.“The students get to look inside the skull and see what’s protecting the brain,” Stalter says. “It’s a nice little introduction into human anatomy.”
Herrmann and Stalter also show children how to properly wear a helmet and stress that if a helmet is fitted too loosely, it can expose the forehead defeating a helmet’s intended purpose.
“Most the time we find they are fitted improperly,” Stalter says. “We do a lot of strap adjustments.”
Last year, the Brain Team conducted seven workshops throughout Middlesex County and donated 30 helmets to elementary students in need. Denise Meyer, School Nurse and Health Teacher at Parker Elementary in Middlesex, says her students really responded to the Brain Team’s message.
“It’s been positive all around from the kids and even the parents,” Meyer says.
Meyer believes the Brain Team offers a change of voice and perspective to students who may sometimes take bike riding for granted.
“They hear from me every day about health and safety,” Meyer says, “but to get that from other people is just so important, especially the ones who are going to be doctors.”
And for those hardheaded children unfazed by eggs and human skulls, who think that wearing a helmet just isn’t cool, the Brain Team pulls out their secret weapon: SpongeBob and Disney Princess stickers.
“By the end, everyone is really jazzed up decorating their helmets,” Stalter says. “We haven’t had too many naysayers after the whole thing is over.”