Helmet possibly saved 8-year-old from head trauma during tornado

UAB scientists say helmets could greatly reduce the number of head traumas, or even death, in a tornado; Noah Stewart wore one when a tornado took him airborne.

As the TV weather forecasters urged viewers in Pleasant Grove, Ala., to head to their safe place, Lisa Stewart told her 8-year-old son Noah to fetch his baseball helmet from his gear bag. She’d never had him take such a protective measure during storm warnings before — but this storm looked bad. It was April 27, 2011.

By the time it was over, 346 people had been killed by the tornados that swept across seven Southeast states, with 248 fatalities in Alabama alone. It was the second deadliest day in the history of American tornadoes.

The Stewart’s home was destroyed. Lisa, husband Jonathon, 19-year-old daughter Haley and Noah were sucked out of the house. Lisa and Jonathon watched Noah go airborne.

“He was as high as the power poles in the neighborhood, being spun around by the tornado,” Lisa recalls. “And he came down and hit the ground. I don’t know if his helmet was still on then, but I think it was.”

Noah thinks so, too. He thinks he hit his head and the helmet shattered. His head, however, did not. He had remarkably few injuries, in fact. Lisa, Jonathon and Haley had some broken bones and bad cuts, but all survived. They all think Noah’s baseball helmet kept him from a serious head injury or worse.

Doctors and researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham think wearing a helmet during severe weather just might be a good idea for everybody.

Stunned by the damage and intensity of the 2011 storms, injury-control scientists at the UAB Injury Control Research Center began looking at injury patterns associated with severe weather.

“It became clear there was a protective factor associated with some kind of protective device for the head, such as helmet,” said Russ Fine, Ph.D., professor of medicine and director of the ICRC.

On Jan. 13, 2012, they published a commentary outlining their findings. One discovery was that half of the 22 fatalities in Jefferson County, Ala., were caused by head injuries. Their conclusion? Helmets are a good idea.

“The recommendation in a severe weather alert is protect your head,” he said. “Protect it with a helmet that is structurally designed to protect the human head.”

Fine’s team concluded that the kind of helmet was secondary. Any helmet is better than none. Fine believes a motorcycle helmet with a full face shield is likely to prove to be the best choice, but a bicycle helmet, hard hat or sports helmet — helmets that families are more likely to have on hand — can help prevent injury.

“This will absolutely reduce injuries, and it will absolutely save lives,” he insists. “Is it 100 percent foolproof? No, nothing is. But we can have a dramatic impact on the number of injuries — head, face and neck injuries — if people will simply go out and get themselves a helmet.”

Mark Baker, M.D., a UAB assistant professor of pediatric emergency medicine, and emergency medicine resident Christine Campbell, M.D., examined the treatment records of 60 children injured by the 2011 storm. They found three cases in which they know the family took additional safety precautions before the storm.

“One of the three, an 8-year-old, was wearing a helmet,” reports Campbell. “And two were babies in infant car seats. In all three cases, their homes were totally destroyed, yet the children suffered only superficial injuries, but no head trauma.”

Campbell presented the findings at the Society for Pediatric Research meeting in New Orleans Feb. 11.

“It just makes sense,” she said. “We know that these kids have things flying at their heads. We’ve seen kids during storms sustain head injuries that are life-threatening and in some cases fatal. And we know that helmets protect heads.”

“People go airborne during a tornado,” said Fine. “And we know that there are objects flying in the air that can strike the head. Having something on your head that could absorb that energy might make the difference between life and death.”

Asked if he’d wear a helmet the next time there is a weather emergency, Noah’s immediate answer is “Of course!” Lisa Stewart will prepare for the upcoming tornado season in Alabama by stocking an emergency bag with a helmet for each family member. Every time she looks at Noah she has all the proof she needs.

“The way that stuff was flying and as high as he was in the air,” she said. “There’s no telling what it could have done to him. We will all wear helmets.”