Transforming law enforcement’s approach to brain injury

Jessica Trego holding a skeleton head for brain injury

Spotting the difference between someone with a brain injury and someone who has had too much to drink can be a challenge, and it could be a life-or-death distinction during an interaction with law enforcement.  

Physical Therapist Jessica Trego is helping educate police about traumatic brain injuries so they are better equipped to deescalate situations.  

“It’s not black and white,” Trego said. “They may have a brain injury, they may be intoxicated, or perhaps both. Jumping to conclusions is unwarranted. It’s crucial to pause and consider the person’s mental state, when encountering an officer.”  

Trego, a certified brain injury specialist and manager of rehabilitation services at Roper Rehabilitation Hospital, has partnered with the Brain Injury Association of South Carolina and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to provide crisis intervention training to law enforcement across the Tri-County area.  

Finding her purpose Trego’s unwavering dedication to helping individuals with brain injuries stems from her early experiences during physical therapy school. Witnessing patients overcome adversity and hearing their stories deeply resonated with her.  

One 24-year-old veteran patient who had served four tours in Iraq left an indelible mark on Trego. While he was out with friends, a car struck him, leaving him unable to speak or stand. Trego helped the veteran regain his abilities.  

“One day he let out this very small, very shallow breath to say, ‘hi,’ and I lost it,” Trego said. “Seeing his progress affirmed my decision to pursue this career path. You never forget those people.”

Trego with local law enforcement officers

A greater need

Upon interviewing at Roper Rehabilitation Hospital in 2008, Trego knew she wanted to help build a brain injury program. She started on the floor as a staff therapist in 2008 and transitioned into management in 2012. She worked with the treatment team to identify which qualifications, resources and tools were needed to grow the hospital’s brain injury service and support capabilities.  

By 2014, the hospital earned its first brain injury-specific accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF), an internationally recognized designation for rehabilitation facilities. The three-year accreditation covers three inpatient and outpatient programs, including stroke, spinal cord and brain injury specialty programs. The hospital’s specially trained staff and specialized facilities – such as quiet gyms and dimmable lights – are catered toward rehabilitating patients with brain injuries.  

“Jessica is an incredible asset to the Rehab Hospital and our brain injury program,” said Jamy Bridges, director of Roper Rehabilitation Hospital. “She uses her passion and expertise to develop and lead programs that have transformed our ability to support patients on their road to recovery.”  

Trego joined the Brain Injury Association of South Carolina Board of Directors in 2016 and spearheaded fundraising efforts, organizing events such as the Shuck-A Rama to raise funds and awareness. Additionally, she actively engaged in legislative advocacy to drive systemic change by her participation with the SC Brain Injury Leadership Council.  

“Seeing the contrast between the resources available to patients within the hospital and the lack of support after their discharge fueled my desire to do more,” Trego said.

Making a difference

When Trego received an invitation to volunteer as a brain injury advocate for a grant-funded crisis intervention training program, she didn’t hesitate to seize the opportunity.  

She collaborates with the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ South Carolina branch in a comprehensive training program designed to equip law enforcement officers with the knowledge to safely respond to individuals in crisis, including those with traumatic brain injuries. The five-day training course includes presentations from community members, mental health professionals and family members and covers a wide array of topics to assist law enforcement when interacting with the mental health community.  

Drawing on her expertise as a brain injury specialist, Trego aims to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the brain injury community.  

“Nobody chooses to have a brain injury,” Trego said. “Their injury may not be visible, making it difficult for others to understand the tremendous effort that goes into recovery. Regardless of a brain injury survivor’s appearance or behavior, it’s important to remember we are all human beings.”

Hope for the future

Presenting on brain injury to officers for the past five years has been an eye-opening experience for Trego. The program’s reach has grown exponentially, with her initial few presentations per year increasing to almost monthly engagements.  

“I’ve had to learn more about officers’ work and how to make a difference in their lives,” Trego said. “Engaging with them, answering their questions, but most importantly, having many officers approach me after a presentation to reveal their concerns about having a brain injury – it’s been incredibly meaningful.”  

More than 5.3 million individuals – approximately one in every 60 people – in the United States live with a permanent brain injury-related disability, according to the Brain Injury Association of America. While traumatic brain injuries can affect anyone, data from the Center of Disease Control highlights specific groups at higher risk, including racial and ethnic minorities, service members and veterans, individuals experiencing homelessness, those in correctional and detention facilities, survivors of intimate partner violence, and people living in rural areas.  

Trego finds encouragement in the growing interest in mental health, mental illness and brain injury awareness, as well as the increasing number of departments and agencies seeking training.  

“It tells me that people want this education,” Trego said. “Awareness is the key. It’s crucial for people to know that having a brain injury isn’t a bad thing, and they don’t have to face it alone.”

Limitations to overcome

After presenting to a local Police Department in June, one officer candidly shared his extensive history of concussions, accidents and hospitalizations, along with symptoms such as persistent headaches and emotional distress. He asked for resources and expressed his gratitude, stating that her presentation had validated his suspicions about an underlying condition.  

“The most frustrating part is wanting to help everyone,” Trego said. “But our capacity to assist is limited by what’s available in the area. In the Tri-County area, there is still a lack of follow-up services available to help survivors of brain injury in our community.”  

Trego referred the officer to the Brain Injury Association of South Carolina, where he can connect with the best resources available.

Discover how Roper Rehabilitation Hospital, the Lowcountry’s sole facility accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, is empowering individuals to reclaim their lives.

Written by Mia Mendez