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Tracy Morgan's Brain Injury: Recovery Can Take Years, Experts Say

by Linda Carroll /

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Almost a year after the horrific traffic accident that wounded his body and injured his brain, Tracy Morgan says he is on the mend, although he still walks with a cane and has headaches and memory problems.

“I have my good days and my bad days when I forget things,” he told Today’s Matt Lauer. “There are times when I have the headaches and the nose bleeds.”

In the end, Morgan’s ability to come back from his brain injury will most likely determine whether he can return to his old life and take up comedy again.

Morgan is one of 275,000 Americans who suffer a brain injury each year that is severe enough to require hospitalization, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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How well any of those people recover is something experts currently cannot predict, said Dr. Douglas Smith, a professor of neurosurgery and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania.

Related: Tearful Tracy Morgan Says He Wonders How He Will Be Funny Again

“We’re really missing information on how to provide a prognosis for these patients,” Smith said. “Some become vibrant members of society again and if you met them you would never know they had had a brain injury. Others face a lifetime of disability.”

For Morgan, things looked pretty grim right after the accident on June 7, 2014. His lawyer, Benedict Morelli told the Associated Press, "when you have a traumatic brain injury, it takes a very long time to find out how you're going to do and how much you're going to recover. You just don't know. He's still fighting and trying to live his life at the same time and trying to get better, and he's just not better. We're hoping and praying to get him back to where he was. But the jury's out."

After a brain injury patients are tested so that rehab specialists can zero in on the abilities that have been most damaged, Smith said.

“Two very common issues are memory and what we call processing speed,” Smith added. “Beyond that people with brain injury can be disinhibited which can lead them to say things that are inappropriate.”

The good news for patients with brain injuries is recovery can continue throughout a lifetime and isn't limited to the first one or two years after the initial damage has been done, Smith said.

Related: Tracy Morgan in First Interview Since Crash: 'Pain Will Always Be There'

Still, getting quality rehab right away is essential. “You want to mobilize neuroplasticity,” said Wayne Gordon, the Jack Nash Professor and vice chair of the department of rehabilitation medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and director of the Mount Sinai Brain Injury Research Center.

That means, the sooner you can get the brain to start to rewire around damage, the better the prognosis, Gordon explained.

Rehab starts with getting patients back on their feet and walking.

“In physical rehab, patients get heavy doses of physical, occupational, and speech therapy,” Gordon said. “Then there is individualized and in-group learning to compensate for and manage what your cognitive challenges are. You’re learning how to minimize those cognitive challenges on a day to day basis.”

Though people remember clearly who they were and what they did before the brain injury they need to realize there will need to be “a new you,” Gordon says.

That doesn’t mean the patient’s essential personality changes, he explained, adding, “you might be viewing the world a little differently now. You might understand things need to take more time, so you don’t rush through things. You realize that everything takes a lot more thought and planning, a lot more organization. You think ahead more. You make sure you get enough sleep.”

Some will learn to lean on memory aids, such as phones programmed to keep track of their schedules.

Gordon is an optimist, though he allows rehab can last a lifetime.

“I think rehab is basically about hope,” he said. “It’s like a marathon, but you really don’t know how long the road is.”

Tracy Morgan believes he’ll make it to the finish line, that he’ll one day get back to doing the thing he loves best, comedy.

“I can’t wait to get back,” he told Lauer. “But right now my goal is just to heal and get better ‘cause I’m not 100 percent yet. And when I’m there you’ll know it. I’ll get back to making you laugh.”

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