When DeShjon Mitchell was in high school, he dreamed of becoming a professional football player or an Olympic hurdler. He never thought he would end up with a spinal cord injury from a car crash before his senior year of high school. He is now 39 years old, has paraplegia and uses a manual wheelchair.
Each year, an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States sustain a brain injury, and thousands more experience spinal cord injuries. Youth under age 24 are more likely to get seriously hurt because they tend to engage in higher-risk behaviors.
Practicing simple safety habits can prevent many of these injuries. This is the goal behind ThinkFirst San Diego, a grant-funded program that educates youth about injury and violence prevention. Mitchell works for the San Diego chapter — sponsored by Sharp Rehabilitation Services — of the international organization and shares his cautionary tale with children, teens and young adults throughout San Diego.
The success of ThinkFirst lies in its powerful prevention and education strategy: Individuals who have experienced serious trauma go into the community and speak to students of all ages, sharing their personal story about how an injury can change a person's life forever. They provide safety tips, demonstrate the correct way to wear protective gear and encourage disability awareness.
“Three of our ThinkFirst VIP (Voice for Injury Prevention) speakers at Sharp were injured in a similar manner — none of us wore a seat belt in the back seat of a car,” Mitchell says. “This type of injury is common, but rarely heard of in the media. It just isn’t news. Yet, one of the most dangerous things our kids do every day is get into a car and not put on a seat belt.”
Shelly Atkinson, a community health educator and recreation therapist at Sharp who coordinates San Diego’s ThinkFirst program, says that most types of injuries seen in the hospital are preventable, especially among children and teens.
“It’s not surprising that our youth are at risk for injury. Who hasn’t had a skinned knee or broken bone as a child or adolescent?” says Atkinson. “Kids and teens are active. They ride skateboards and bicycles, play sports and jump into water. The key is to teach kids how to do all of these activities safely by encouraging them to ‘Think First’ before doing something. None of us are immune to life-changing injuries, and I see the consequences of them every day in our rehab center.”
ThinkFirst is a grant-funded program. If you are interested in scheduling a speaker for a group or class, or if you have any questions, call 858-939-4416.