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From Tragedy, a Glimmer
A new brain trauma research fund honors a patient’s memory and boosts efforts to find new therapies.

blank Anna Cheng
Anna Cheng Sowers, NCCU nurse Kathryn Knapp and Marek Mirski. Sowers says the NCCU team provided her husband with meticulous care.

The neurocritical care units at Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins Bayview have admirably high success rates. Whereas mortality rates for one category of stroke patients number about 40 percent nationwide, Hopkins’ NCCU mortality rate is 10 percent. In addition, patients at both sites have the shortest length of stay in the ICU following brain surgery compared with others across the country.
Numbers for traumatic brain injury patients, however, are not as easy to come by. For one, volumes are low (just 5 percent), and the cases are complex and heterogeneous in nature. That’s why a new brain trauma research fund is so welcome. It will subsidize both laboratory research to treat brain swelling and hypothermia and clinical research to evaluate which practice patterns influence outcomes.

The fund takes its name—the Zach Sowers Brain Trauma Research Fund—from a case that grabbed media attention beginning in the summer of 2007. That’s when the 27-year-old Sowers, a financial planner for The Johns Hopkins University, was brutally beaten in a robbery near his home. Kicked in the head and left for dead, Sowers was taken to Hopkins, where he went unidentified until, on closer examination, his wife recognized him.

Over the next several months, Sowers was entrusted to the care of Marek Mirski, director of both NCCUs, and his team. Sowers remained in a deep coma, unarousable with even the deepest stimulation. Despite his caregivers’ best efforts, he never regained consciousness and died in March 2008. Unfortunately,” says Mirski, “there’s no magic bullet to repair brain damage. Though the brain has some self-help capacity, it’s not like the liver or skin, which can regenerate.”

Now Sowers’ wife, Anna Cheng, who was then a project manager in Johns Hopkins Medicine Marketing and Communications and is now law school-bound, wants to give back. She established the Sowers Fund with money from family and friends, patient-directed gifts and Mirski’s department. A benefit for the fund will take place at Pazo restaurant on March 1 (see box). Proceeds will focus on much-needed research projects to increase odds of immediate survival following traumatic brain injury.

Mirski says he’s never had a case that garnered so much media attention. As Cheng spoke out against violence, he says, “she also highlighted the emotional toll that acute and chronic brain injury creates.” And, though the new fund comes too late to help Sowers, it may one day prove instrumental in restoring others’ cognitive function. Meanwhile, says Mirski, “we will continue doing everything in our power to steer the brain back to a healthy state.”          




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