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Roanoke area resident honored as national health leader

Fran Rooker has received a national award from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation for her work with brain injury survivors in our area. Here is a press release from the foundation:

Fran Rooker’s 10-year-old son Jason was playing in the backyard when tragedy struck. A fluke accident caused Jason to be strangled, depriving him of oxygen for about 10 minutes. Jason survived the accident, but the injury to his brain left him a quadriplegic and unable to communicate. Rooker spent the next year by her son’s side in a hospital and children’s rehabilitation center. She was determined to help her son rebuild his life but soon discovered there were no services to help her do that in their rural community near Roanoke, Virginia.

Fifteen months after the injury—and two months before his 12th birthday—Jason died in his sleep. While caring for Jason, Rooker had observed other families whose loved ones had suffered brain injury. She saw those families break up, couples get divorced and siblings go into denial about their brother or sister’s condition. “It had become my life’s work to help Jason. After he died, we decided to do something to help other people and their families who struggle to live with this disability,” she said.

Rooker and her husband Greg, a former community newspaper owner and publisher, founded the Jason Foundation as a resource people could call on for help. Then they connected with Brain Injury Services, Inc., in northern Virginia to mentor them in establishing a similar organization in their home region. The Rookers founded Brain Injury Services of Southwest Virginia to provide critically needed, community-based case management and other services that support people living with brain injury to resume lives as contributing members of their families and communities. Today, the organization employs 12 case managers and life-skills trainers and serves more than 300 families each year in an 11,000-square-mile area of the state.

In recognition of her efforts to improve the lives of people and families struggling with the disability of brain injury in an area of the country where there were no such services, Rooker has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Rooker will receive the award during a ceremony at the Foundation in Princeton, N.J., on August 12.

Community Health Leaders National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin said the selection committee honored Rooker for “her commitment and generous spirit to turn a personal tragedy into a living legacy for her son that can mean the difference between surviving brain injuries and conditions and being able to live meaningful lives,” Griffin said.

“Brain injury is probably the most misunderstood, misdiagnosed and heavily under-funded disability. More people are living after a brain injury, and we are seeing it in near-epidemic proportions because of what’s happening to our military personnel,” Rooker said, noting there are more than 156,000 people living with long-term challenges due to brain injury in Virginia alone. Many of the rehabilitative services brain injury survivors need, Rooker points out, are not covered by Medicaid, Medicare or private insurance. This includes rehabilitation for neurobehavioral issues, which affect thousands of Virginians living with this disability, and for which there are only 40 beds available in facilities across the state.

Rooker led an effort to convince the 2004 Virginia General Assembly to include $2.2 million in its budget to fund statewide health care providers who specialized in brain injury services.

Today, Rooker is expanding her work by collaborating with specialists from the Virginia Tech Department of Assistive Technology, Radford University and Brain Injury Services of Southwest Virginia on the development of a telehealth pilot project that provides brain injury survivors in rural settings with rehabilitative resources, including neurocognitive and neurobehavioral therapies. The innovative program was spawned at Brain Injury Services of Southwest Virginia and is designed to connect the participant group with a specialized facilitator through an Internet-based service for highly interactive, structured rehabilitative and social networking sessions. These sessions aim to promote peer support and reconnection with activities in each person’s home community.

P. Brent Brown, a parent of a child with a brain injury who benefited from Rooker’s support services, said, “Fran Rooker was not able to save her child, but she helped save mine. In September 1999, 19-year-old Heather lay in a hospital bed completely paralyzed on one side of her body and in a deep and unrelenting coma. The treating neurosurgeon tried to prepare my wife and me to accept that our daughter’s brain injury might require her to spend the rest of her life in a nursing home. In May 2006, Heather graduated from Hollins University with a BS in Psychology.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 180 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2010 recipients includes specialized care for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients in Darwin, Minn.; a worker-owned collaborative that provides healthy food to a disenfranchised community in Oakland, Calif.; social services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth in Chicago; medical care for women who are homeless in Boston; a health promotion program for Hispanics in Central Florida; a disease management program for women living with HIV/AIDS in New York City; medical care and transition assistance for former prison inmates in San Francisco; oral health care for homeless people in Phoenix; and a community clinic for low-income and uninsured patients in Albuquerque, N.M.

Nominations can be submitted though late October for the 2011 Community Health Leaders Award. For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit