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Nurse heads program to lower injury rates

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207smVirginia R. Corrigan knows how devastating brain and spinal cord injuries can be.

While working in the trauma unit at Christiana Hospital in 1993, the critical care nurse found herself caring for a 19-year-old dying of massive head injuries he’d received in a serious car accident. She recalls how his parents brought pictures of him to the hospital and how they grieved for their son.

That tragedy marked a turning point in Corrigan’s life and career. She remembers thinking, “Why are we doing this? This is insane. I cannot assist with one more death certificate or organ donation for one more teenager without doing something that stems the tide.”

Now, as injury prevention coordinator of the Trauma Program at Christiana Care, Corrigan is responsible for raising public awareness of the life-altering effects of traumatic injuries and what can be done to prevent them.

Because it is the state’s only Level 1 trauma facility, Christiana Care is required to do quantifiable community outreach education to reduce the incidence of traumatic injury. Corrigan joined the program as a part-time volunteer in 1994 and two years later became the coordinator.

“My job is to look at the injuries that are occurring in the state and determine the best method of intervention,” said Corrigan, 44, of Newark, who has been a nurse for more than 20 years.

The need for intervention is great. Traumatic injury remains the leading cause of death for children and adults ages 1 to 44 in Delaware, according to the Division of Public Health. In addition, Corrigan estimates that between 160 and 180 people are admitted each month to Christiana Hospital’s trauma unit.

But getting the message across can be a challenge. “People think that if it is an issue, it’s going to happen to someone else, and not to them,” she said. “The major problem of injury prevention initiatives is that people truly think that since it is not a planned thing, how can you possibly talk about preventing it?”

The program customizes presentations for schools, health fairs, businesses and community groups, and its members serve on Christiana Care’s speakers bureau. Last December, for example, Corrigan spoke to parents in a middle school PTA about how to help kids avoid holiday-related injuries. Other times, Corrigan will draw a community’s attention to a problem it didn’t realize it had.

“Sometimes a community will think its biggest problem is violence, but when we look at the data we find their biggest problem is child passenger safety,” she said.

The Trauma Program also works closely with other organizations whose goals augment its mission. Corrigan is an active member of Delaware Emergency Medical Services for Children, the Brain Injury Committee, the Delaware SAFE KIDS Coalition, the University and Schools Alliance and the Delaware Coalition for Injury Prevention. As a Think First state chapter director for the National Injury Prevention Foundation, she also serves on the Teens Task Force and the Directors’ Subcommittee.

In 2002, Christiana Hospital was awarded one of only 30 national SAFE KIDS Child Safety Seat Inspection Station grants. The program provides child safety seats to families who cannot afford them and funding to operate a permanent inspection station, located at the entrance to the Women’s Health Wing at the hospital. Since the program started, the misuse rate of child safety seats in Delaware has dropped from more than 90 percent to about 79 percent.

The Think First Delaware campaign, meanwhile, targets teens and elementary-school children to get them to use their minds to protect their bodies. Each presentation explains the function of the brain and spinal cord, how injury occurs, physical consequences and prevention strategies. The message is reinforced when a local survivor — a Voice for Injury Prevention, or VIP — discusses his injury and how it changed his life.

Corrigan works closely with teachers to tailor the program to the specific needs of the students who participate. “You don’t talk to young children the way you talk to a 16-year-old,” said Corrigan, who holds a master’s degree in pediatric nursing. “Little children learn by telling stories and playing games.”

Teens, though, are the main focus of the Think First program, because not only are they unaware of the risk of injury but they consider themselves invulnerable. “It’s harder to reach teenagers,” Corrigan said. “They don’t want to hear one more lecture.”

That’s why bringing in survivors has such an impact.

Elaine vanWickle, a health teacher at Glasgow High School, agreed. “The survivors are very open to the students’ questions. It really makes it real for the kids,” vanWickle said.

Corrigan knows the program has made an impact from the feedback she’s gotten. She cites the case of Megan Willey. Ten years ago, Willey was a student at Glasgow High. Two weeks after completing the Think First program, the teen fell off a fence and broke her neck. Thanks to what she learned in the program, she knew not to move until help arrived — and saved herself from a spinal cord injury.

Corrigan also continues to educate the state Legislature. One success she notes is Delaware’s graduated drivers licensing law, which went into effect in 1999. “Thirty-one teenagers ages 16 to 17 died in accidents over a two-year period before the law was enacted, whereas only 16 died during the same period after the law was passed,” she said. “And we’re talking about 1,000 less injured.”

She is grateful for any success. “I have a wonderful job because I’m actually preventing all the things I saw in trauma. There’s nothing better than saving a life — except not having the injury happen at all.”

Special to The News Journal

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