UD brain health initiatives receive $450K donation from Dayton Foundation

The inspirational story of a young Bellbrook man’s recovery from a traumatic brain injury and work at the University of Dayton’s Brain Health Collaboratory has led to the Dayton Foundation funding a community effort that could help others for years to come.

As a growing leader in the field of traumatic brain injuries, UD will receive a $450,000 grant from the Dayton Foundation to fund education, research, and community outreach to help improve prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation for traumatic brain injuries.

The university’s Brain Health Collaboratory will be the lead partner for the grant, which is a three-year grant that will support community-wide efforts to help people and families dealing with neurological issues. UD professor Susan Davies launched the Brain Health Collaboratory in 2021 to help better coordinate care, education, and community outreach when it came to traumatic brain injuries.

“Our region has many talented health care providers, educators, and researchers working on issues related to traumatic brain injuries and brain health,” said Davies, who is a professor and school psychology program coordinator at UD and Leary Chair for Innovation in Education, Health, and Wellness.

Davies, who previously worked as a school psychologist, conducts research on concussion management and has published guidelines for school systems on best practices for helping students recover from concussions.

“I’m so impressed by Dr. Davies’ dedication and outstanding research in the area of traumatic brain injury that has resulted in this amazing award for community outreach,” said Ali Carr-Chellman, dean of the School of Education and Health Sciences.

The Dayton Foundation’s interest in funding brain health initiatives grew after the foundation was connected with the Play 4 Payne Foundation. In 2021, Dayton Foundation board member L. Tony Ortiz met Mark and Jenness Sigman of Bellbrook, who created a non-profit to help brain injury survivors after their son, Payne, suffered a traumatic brain injury during a car accident.

Payne’s story

On Jan. 19, 2014, Payne Sigman was involved in a single-car accident due to weather conditions while on his way to church. Following the accident, CareFlight transported Payne to Miami Valley Hospital where he spent 13 days in a coma and 17 days in a the trauma unit due to a severe traumatic brain injury.

Doctors were unsure if Payne would live the day, and if he did, they didn’t know if he would walk or talk again, said Mark.

Payne was later moved to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, where he spent eight weeks in inpatient rehabilitation. He spent a total of 72 days in the hospital.

‘Play 4 Payne’

The Play 4 Payne Foundation began when people started donating money to help pay for medical costs and a new letter jacket for Payne, as Payne had been a Bellbrook High School student athlete and medics had to cut off his previous jacket following the accident.

The company that made the letter jacket, though, ended up donating a new letter jacket to Payne.

“And we were fortunate that our insurance was excellent, so we were able to afford the care,” Mark said. The Sigman family then turned those donations into a foundation to help other people who suffered traumatic brain injuries, as well as their families.

The Play 4 Payne Foundation helps provide social and emotional support for survivors of traumatic brain injuries and their families, along with providing survivors and their families informational care packages and, in some instances, financial assistance. The foundation also creates community awareness of brain health and traumatic brain injury as a public health priority, help fund research on traumatic brain injuries, and provide scholarships.

The name of the foundation also came from one of the phrases that circulated among local, national, and even international sports players to show support for Payne and his recovery.

“When he was in the hospital, other area schools started wearing ‘Play 4 Payne’ t-shirts to their basketball games,” Jenness said. Payne’s sister, Shelby (Sigman) Herlihy, wore the phrase on her college basketball team shirt, and a speed skater at the Sochi Olympics also wore that phrase.

“It spread all over,” Jenness said.

Trial and error

The emotional toll the accident and injury left Payne and his family with was difficult, but they remained determined in taking the steps toward getting Payne on a path to relearning his motor skills, which they said was “miraculous.”

“I think I cried every day for 10 straight weeks,” Mark said about the initial time period after the accident.

There weren’t also many resources available for them to help the Sigman family understand Payne’s traumatic brain injury, which is another reason they started the Play 4 Payne Foundation.

“It felt like watching my parents do a lot of trial and error,” Shelby said about the different therapies and methods they tried to help Payne during his recovery. “They were always trying something new.”

After undergoing a lengthy rehabilitation process, Payne graduated from high school and college, earning a a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Trine University. He later earned a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from UD in 2022. Payne also got married July 17, 2020 to his wife, Bridgett.

An ongoing recovery

“The recovery has been years and, in a sense, is still ongoing,” Payne said. After his accident, Payne didn’t walk or talk for five weeks. He also had to use a feeding tube for a portion of his recovery.

“It was so different at different times,” Payne said.

Payne would spend long periods of time working toward the different goals his physical and speech therapists set out for him, Jenness said.

“Everybody’s different when they’re recovering from a brain injury, and Payne’s recovery was in the top 1%,” Jenness said. “It is an absolute miracle.”

“Before he talked, he would write on a dry erase board,” Mark said. They knew his cognition was improving when he was able to solve a calculus problem with his dry erase board, but even then, Payne couldn’t tell them what day of the week it was.

Payne said he wasn’t as aware during the early days of his recovery, so he remembers being focused on doing whatever he needed to do to practice and get better.

“It’s been so long, it’s changed at different times. It’s been difficult in a sense throughout the whole thing,” Payne said.

Shelby also credited Payne for continuing to work at getting better.

“It’s just inspirational. I think it could have been very easy for Payne to just give up or get comfortable with where he’s at,” Shelby said. It has been nearly 10 years since the accident, and Payne is still continuing to push himself toward improving, she said.

A community of resources

Once the Dayton Foundation learned of Davies’ work, Davies met with foundation representatives and the Sigmans to discuss their mutual interests and community needs surrounding brain health.

A community survey helped identify four areas the grant will help support, along with regional organizations to lead that work, including the following: continuum of care and health equity (Goodwill Easterseals Miami Valley), interdisciplinary education (Clark and Montgomery County Educational Service Centers), applied research (Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association), and marketing, awareness and promotion building (Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services).

The grant also will provide educational opportunities for students at UD, including guidance on research projects, and support for an annual symposium. UD held its first Brain Health Collaboratory symposium in March.

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