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Brain trust

Head injury survivor joins psychology researcher

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  • Story and photo by Josh Murray
  • Published: Feb. 22, 2012
Jerry Mitchell

After suffering a severe head injury and amnesia in 2003, MU undergraduate researcher and McNair Scholar Jerry Mitchell now studies how the brain works.

Jerry Mitchell conducts psychology research. He is among an elite group of students to be named McNair Scholars. He's a volunteer and leader among peers with disabilities. In MU's Personality Dynamics Lab, he works side by side with Middlebush Professor Laura King.

In all of his endeavors, Mitchell seeks to understand how the brain works.

It's an academic interest with personal origins. Mitchell knows firsthand about the effects of trauma on brain function. On Feb. 15, 2003, on an icy interstate in Northern Indiana, his own brain was permanently altered. 

The accident

On that day, Mitchell was making the eight-hour drive from Indianapolis to his hometown, Luzerne, Mich. Mitchell, then a first-year student at ITT Technical School in Indianapolis, was a few hours into the journey when the car in front of his hit a patch of ice, spun several times and ended up in the median of Interstate 69. Avoiding the spinning car, Mitchell drove his truck into a snow bank on the side of the road.

After an unsuccessful attempt to help get the other car out of the median, Mitchell returned to his truck. However, before he could get the door open, he was sideswiped by a passing car that lost control on the same patch of ice. The car struck Mitchell's truck and then plowed through Mitchell’s legs, sending him over the car before he landed hard on the road.

“I remember sticking my key in the door, and then all I can see is a green blur,” Mitchell says. “I lost consciousness when the car hit me but woke up when my head hit the pavement.”

It was Mitchell's second accident that year. Just six months earlier, a car had sped through a traffic light and smashed into the driver’s side door of the car Mitchell was driving. A crushed pelvis, fractured liver and ruptured spleen put him in the hospital and kept him off his feet for three months.

This time, his stay in the hospital would be longer and his recovery would be more difficult. Mitchell was rushed by helicopter to the nearest hospital where he spent nearly nine hours in surgery.

His left foot had been caught in the car that hit him, causing severe damage to the foot, ankle and leg. The side of his face had hit the windshield of the oncoming car, causing it to turn purple and swell up. He also had serious head trauma from landing on the frigid asphalt of the interstate.

Mitchell was in surgery when his parents arrived at the hospital. They were immediately met by the chaplain, who told them Mitchell might not survive.

“I had lost so much blood,” Mitchell says, “and with the head trauma, they weren’t sure if I would wake up after being in surgery for so long.”

He would undergo seven additional surgeries over the next month and a half, including an experimental procedure in which doctors removed his left abdomen bank and used it to sculpt a new foot for him.

Memory loss

The physical injuries were one thing, but the mental damage was another.

Mitchell went through a battery of psychological tests to determine the extent of the head trauma and showed traits of retrograde amnesia, which is the loss of access to events that occurred or information that was learned before an injury.

Doctors estimated that Mitchell initially lost somewhere between 14 and 20 years of memory. He had to re-learn how to do everything from walking to using silverware. In addition, he had several short-term memory issues that caused him even to forget to eat.

His doctors said his was the worst case they had ever encountered. Mitchell became a guinea pig for several procedures, with doctors telling him, “If it will work for your case, it will work in any case.”

Rebuilding the mind

Slowly Mitchell regained much of his memory, though concentration is a lingering challenge.

“That really isn’t a memory problem," he explains, "but it stops things from going into my memory.”

Mitchell thinks differently now than he did before the accident.

“I use a lot more associative learning and creativity and imagination,” says Mitchell, formerly a technical thinker.

Mitchell also experienced changes in his personality and says he understands people better now.

“Some parts of my personality got amplified, while other parts vanished,” Mitchell says. “For people who knew me before the accident, I’m not that same person now.”

Though it might be coincidental, Mitchell's grade point average has improved. On a recent IQ test, he scored in the top  2 percent.

Exploring new fields

Once back on his feet, Mitchell wanted to return to school. No longer able to work as a telecommunications technician, he sought a new interest.

“I had to figure out what my brain was good at now,” he says. “That’s how I got interested in psychology. I enrolled in every psychology class I could at a community college near my hometown.”

With several courses under his belt, Mitchell began to research four-year institutions. MU made his short list because of the diverse requirement system in psychology and MU's undergraduate research opportunities.

“After reading what the faculty was doing,” he says, “I was sold on Missouri.”

In the lab

Mitchell arrived on campus in June 2010 and started volunteering in psychology professor Laura King's lab the following fall.

Mitchell quickly impressed King when he brought 22 research ideas to their initial meeting. Four of those topics were directly related to King's ongoing research.

“His ideas are creative and exciting,” King says. “I often tell people that I judge prospective students based on the quality of my own thoughts when I am talking to them. Jerry makes me think better.”

Mitchell and King waded through his list and decided on a study of intuitive processing and its role in moderating the consequences in positive effect, which he describes as a "happy mood."

“Research has shown that when people are in a ‘happy mood’ they are more creative,” Mitchell says. “They are more approach motivated ,and they make decisions differently than when they are not happy. We think that what a ‘happy mood’ is doing is causing you to think in an intuitive way rather than in a logical way.”

King calls Mitchell one of the “most insightful and fascinating people I have ever met.” He has proposed not one study but a series of studies, examining the moderation of the effects of positive mood.

Getting involved

Last semester, Mitchell was named a McNair Scholar, placing him in a program that helps prepare undergraduate research students for graduate study.

“It is a mock graduate school,” Mitchell says of the McNair Scholars Program. “It allows you to get a taste of what you want to do in your field. I wish everyone had the opportunity to go through something like this.”

Mitchell will graduate in August and plans to conduct research while in graduate school. Meanwhile, he will continue working in King’s lab as he completes his bachelor's degree.

In addition, Mitchell volunteers with several disability organizations on campus and serves as vice president of MU Student Exceptions (MUSE), which is an umbrella organization for anyone with disabilities or anyone who is interested in disability issues.

“Advocacy is our main role, but we also act as a community to offer support for people with disabilities,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell offers support by sharing his story. On that day in 2003, he didn’t know what was ahead of him. After a long and arduous recovery, he has found a new path for his life.

Read more in:  Science & TechnologyHealth & MedicineEducationOn Campus

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Last updated: Feb. 23, 2012