Noel Gunther remembers the moment when he realized that public broadcasting had to get involved in traumatic brain injury education.
It was 2001. Gunther was producing a segment for WETA’s documentary series Exploring Your Brain. He was interviewing hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, who had been forced to retire at age 34 after several concussions. The first, in 1990, knocked him unconscious and put him into convulsions — and yet LaFontaine was back on the ice 10 days later.
After he retired in 1999, LaFontaine suffered from chronic piercing headaches and depression; his mind was in a fog. “Pat told me about trying to read a book to his daughter — a simple book,” Gunther said. “He started reading but couldn’t focus. He couldn’t get through the page, or even finish a sentence. He was nearly in tears as he told his daughter, ‘Daddy can’t read this to you today.’”
Gunther soon discovered that there were few readily available, comprehensive services to provide information and support for survivors of traumatic brain injury (TBI). By 2008, WETA had created just that: BrainLine.org.
When the site launched, there was little public discussion of traumatic brain injuries — although some 1.7 million people sustain them annually, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. BrainLine has grown along with public awareness of the injuries in professional football, in high-school and college sports, in combat, even in toddlers’ accidents — learning to walk or falling from cribs. The Nov. 1 issue of Sports Illustrated contains a special report on the problem in the NFL. Its cover headline is “Concussions: The hits that are changing the game.”
BrainLine is one of five successful education portals developed and run by WETA’s 16-person, $2.5 million Learning Media department, headed by Gunther — v.p., learning and interactive media — and its director, Christian Lindstrom. Both have been been with the project since its inception in 1996.
Gunther took a circuitous route to the job. He trained to be an attorney at Harvard but gave up that first career to write full time. When WETA President Sharon Rockefeller offered him the station general counsel’s position in the early 1990s, Gunther said, he took the job for only for a relatively short time: He wanted to do creative work. While general counsel, he co-produced five radio documentaries and three TV shows. “Based on that experience, Sharon graciously agreed to let me step down as general counsel and to start WETA Learning Media in 1996,” he said.
The subjects of the Learning Media websites vary: learning disabilities, adolescent literature, English as a second language, childhood literacy.
It’s a low-profile department at WETA, little known to the broader public, and its audiences measure in the hundreds of thousands instead of the millions that watch TV. But compared with broadcasting and broader outreach efforts, its sites have highly personal impact among their users. Each site targets an audience that cares so much about learning, and sharing what they know, that many make the website part of their daily lives.
In developing the sites, “we tried to identify things that affect millions of people, and that are so complicated that they can’t just be covered with a brochure,” Gunther said. “And they’re evergreen. All our subjects have been around for a long time, and people have deep emotional connections to them.”
Partnering with Defense
Among outreach projects in public broadcasting, BrainLine has a large and unusual major funder: the U.S. Department of Defense. Another winding road led to that partnership.
One segment of WETA’s 2001 series of Exploring Your Brain featured the story of Theresa Rankin, who had sustained a brain injury when the car her boyfriend was driving tumbled down a cliff in California.
“Theresa, as it turned out, knew everyone and everything about TBI,” Gunther said. She urged Gunther and Lindstrom to launch a new service about brain injuries. The two agreed and Rankin set out to find funding — which took five years.
Finally, Rankin spoke with Alice Marie Stevens, who at that time oversaw education and outreach for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC). Stevens had a background in education, and coincidentally had spent hours on WETA’s Reading Rockets site.
Stevens spoke with her superior. Learning Media won a DVBIC grant in in 2007, and launched BrainLine on Veterans Day, 2008. “As usual in public broadcasting,” Gunther quipped, “it was an overnight success that was actually seven years in the making.” Rankin is still actively engaged in doing national outreach for BrainLine.
Recently, two high-profile, enthusiastic supporters of the site have been talking it up publicly: Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife Deborah
Deborah Mullen told Current that she is concerned with many challenges to members of the military and their families, from homelessness to post-traumatic stress and suicide. “I’m always looking for good resources,” she said.
Gunther had met several of Adm. Mullen’s aides in March 2009 through a representative of the Bob Woodruff Foundation — Woodruff, an ABC News correspondent, suffered a brain injury in an explosion while covering the war in Iraq, and now his foundation advocates for victims. An aide to the admiral told Gunther that Deborah Mullen was interested in learning more about BrainLine.
In November last year, Deborah Mullen spent three hours visiting the BrainLine’s home at WETA in Arlington, Va., and asking probing questions. “I tend not to just walk through,” she said, “I have a real need to understand an issue, because of the significant impact this has on families. I feel I’m another set of eyes and ears for my husband.”
“She came away believing the project had a lot of merit,” Gunther said.
In January 2010, Gunther found himself in the Tank at the Pentagon — an ultra-secure room used for presidential, Joint Chiefs and other high-security meetings. He made a presentation to 15 senior-level military spouses including Becky Gates and Holly Petraeus, wives of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of forces in Iraq. “For them, brain injury has become a major cause, and they’ve devoted enormous amounts of time to the issue,” Gunther said. All were impressed with BrainLine.
Another supporter is Col. Jamie Grimes, M.D., DVBIC’s national director. Her long career includes nine months on the 359th Neurosurgical Team in Baghdad.
Grimes and two DVBIC liaisons to BrainLine talk often with Gunther and Lindstrom about themes and important messages the site can convey.
The center’s own site, DVBIC.org, “is heavily oriented to the military — it’s our platform to get information out all over the world,” Grimes said, “but our service members are not just active duty.” Many are in the Reserves, the National Guard or retired. “Based on the numbers we’re seeing, the vast majority of brain injuries are not on combat field, but closer to home, such as in car accidents, falls or sports,” she said. BrainLine provides a comprehensive civilian resource for those victims.
BrainLine is brimming with information, vetted by a panel of advisers including a neurosurgeon, two rehab specialists and a brain injury researcher, who work closely with the WETA team to keep information up to date.
Site visitors choose among numerous topics, presented in various media. There are videos of interviews with specialists, first-person injury survivor stories, rolling news headlines. The basic facts section includes 37 topics, from symptom identification to intimate relationship advice to policy explanations. There’s BrainLine en Español, and a new feature just launched this month, BrainLine Kids.
The section for kids is a vital educational tool for parents, Gunther said. “There’s very, very little available on the Web for children with brain injuries,” he said. “Their symptoms may seem to clear up after an hour, or a day or two. It could be they never see a doctor. But there may be more subtle long-term effects,” such as cognitive or sleep problems.
Deborah Mullen points to three aspects of the work she finds particularly important. First, the site’s resource center, which lists accredited specialists by ZIP Code. Also, because brain injuries can damage vision, pages can be adjusted to show different font sizes. And the Learning Media team assembles focus groups to watch how users navigate the pages. “You can tell the team has thought about all this in detail,” she said. “You can sense the passion behind it.”
Steadily growing usage
The sites developed by WETA Learning Media start with similar templates, and each gives users tools appropriate for their needs. Users can assemble information for local training workshops or professional development. “If they have just one day to pull something together, they can get research-based information right off the shelf,” Gunther said.
BrainLine’s monthly unique visitors have jumped a whopping 74 percent from 21,700 in October 2009 to 38,000 a year later.
The Learning Media unit runs four other sites with growing numbers of visitors:
LD Online, about learning disabilities and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, launched in 1996. Unique visitors have increased around 10 percent, from 215,000 to 236,000 a month, during the year ending in October. There are articles, multimedia, essays, children’s writing and artwork, monthly advice columns by experts, forums, a resource directory, and a local referrals directory.
Reading Rockets went online in 2001. Its monthly unique visitors have increased around 42 percent over the last year, from 238,000 to 339,000. The site examines how young children learn to read and why so many struggle. It’s aimed at teachers and families, with articles, professional development webcasts, interviews with children’s authors, a daily headline service and two blogs.
¡Colorín Colorado! is a bilingual Spanish/English website for parents and teachers of English-language learners, launched in 2004. Monthly unique visitors are up 24 percent since last year, from 106,000 to 131,000. The website gives Spanish-speaking parents information in their native language and advises teachers working with children for whom English is a second language. The site’s name is the Spanish equivalent of the fairytale phrase, “ … and they lived happily ever after.”
AdLit.org, which has provided resources for parents and educators of struggling readers and writers in grades 4-12 since 2007, has seen a nearly 23 percent hike in unique visitors per month in the last year, from 29,000 to 36,000. Visitors find research-based articles, classroom instructional materials, an Ask the Experts feature, a blog by a librarian, book recommendations, exclusive interviews with authors, and a free monthly e-newsletter.
“Unmatched public service”
“If you or your child has a learning disability or brain injury, it’s a 24/7 concern,” Gunther said. “The use we see on all the sites is not just during day but also the posting of plaintive questions and comments in the middle of the night. An emotional connection is a huge part of sustaining a bond. The most important step in developing projects like this is to identify a subject area where public broadcasting can play a significant part.”
“If you have the right topic and passion, and your audience cares,” he added, “the odds are some funder or foundation is every bit as passionate.”
“BrainLine has had an immense impact on people I’ve sent it to,” said Dr. Tom Tatlock, a former psychiatrist in Appleton, Wis., who is living with his own brain injury. He was briefly knocked unconscious when he fell off a ladder in 1999. “By the time I got to the hospital, I felt like a steel rod was being driven through my right eye,” Tatlock said. “I was projectile-vomiting and had severe pain all over my body.” He was hospitalized overnight for testing. The next morning, doctors told him his brain scans were clear — no problem, they said.
But Tatlock soon began to feel severe fatigue and pain. He had to modify his work schedule, and in 2000 he retired early.
It took him 14 months to find appropriate care. Now, strong medications and a several rest periods each day allow him to work for other brain-injury survivors. He serves on several advisory boards, including one at the Mayo Clinic. “The injury made me into an advocate educator,” he said.
BrainLine is one of his main resources. Tatlock uses it in many ways: He takes advantage of outreach tools for presentations. He brings research findings to the attention of the BrainLine staff. He provides the link to other survivors. And reads it himself every day.
Gunther thinks that depth of involvement in outreach is a key to the entire system’s future.
“For public broadcasting to be successful,” he said, “we need not only great shows on the air but also to be a vibrant institution in the community, providing unmatched public service.”