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ThinkFirst! safety talk aims to reduce devastating injuries

Jesse Gildea, a program speaker with ThinkFirst Iowa, interacts with students at Van Allen Elementary in North Liberty on Wednesday, Nov. 7.

NORTH LIBERTY– It only takes an instant to change a life, possibly forever.
Each year, approximately 600 Iowans are paralyzed from a spinal cord injury and another 5,000 will suffer from a traumatic brain injury (TBI), according to information provided by ThinkFirst Iowa, an injury prevention program based out of the Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines.
In addition to the physical challenges of a brain or spinal injury, there is great financial cost. The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center reports nearly 12,000 spinal cord injuries nationwide each year with treatment costs in the first year ranging from $321,000 to $985,000 (in 2010 dollars), and with a lifetime cost from $1.4 to $4.3 million (in 2010 dollars and from age 25).
With some simple safety tips, ThinkFirst hopes to prevent, or at least greatly reduce, the incidence of these injuries in children and young adults. For 24 years, the program’s speakers, known as a Voice for Injury Prevention (VIP), have taken this message to elementary, middle and high school students across Iowa. Jesse Gildea is one of two fulltime VIPs, and met with nearly 500 kids at Van Allen Elementary on Wednesday, Nov. 7.
Gildea was 18 years old when a motocross bike accident changed his life. He had taken the usual precautions, such as wearing pads and a helmet, but a crash led to his body slamming to the ground. The sudden stop broke his spine and severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. After surgery to repair his spinal column, and an extended stay in a rehabilitation center, Gildea began working with ThinkFirst Iowa, first as a volunteer for four years, then as a fulltime VIP.
Gildea credits a ThinkFirst presentation at his high school two months before his accident for sparking his interest in the program and his time in rehabilitation for getting him involved in injury prevention. His mission takes him to 300 schools and 30,000 kids across Iowa every year. The day of the Van Allen visit, he had already given a series of talks in Newhall. He’s on the road nearly every school day, and he said he has a reason as simple as the safety tips he delivers.
“It’s all about helping kids to make safe choices,” Gildea said.
His presentation starts with a brief animated video, which shows kids in dangerous situations saved by a safety superhero kid. It’s a way to get the importance of safety across without frightening the kids, he said. Gildea then talks about the brain and spinal cord and how even a little injury to either can have lasting effects. The importance of bike helmets is covered as he first shows how not to wear it, then demonstrates proper fitting.
An unsuspecting melon featured prominently in his next two demonstrations. The melon, which Gildea called “Melanie,” is used to graphically show the value of helmets.
Gildea told a story of a girl named Melanie, and her tragic adventure riding her bike with friends. With her helmet on, Gildea said as he strapped the demonstration melon into a helmet, she hit a rock and fell off. For demonstration purposes, Gildea dropped the helmet, and then showed that the melon was undamaged. Current guidelines call for discarding a helmet after only one crash, he noted.
Melanie the melon complied with this rule, Gildea said, but instead of walking her bike back home or calling for her parents to come and get her, she rode home helmetless. After being hit by a car, her head struck the pavement. To illustrate, Gildea took the helmetless melon and slammed it to the floor, where it split open. The kindergarten, first and second grade audience responded with an audible reaction to Gildea’s narrative.
Gildea finished the program by telling his own personal story, and showing the battered helmet which saved his life.
For more information about ThinkFirst Iowa and tips to protect your melon, go to www.thinkfirstiowa.org.