It isn’t every day that someone you know suffers a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after being involved in a car accident. That’s probably why classic soap opera shows love to include these kinds of storylines—you know, the one where a character has an accident, suffers a brain injury, and dramatically loses all memory of recent events. It’s a trope that avid soap opera fans have continuously tuned in for, and one that less-than-avid fans tend to roll their eyes at.
That’s why it’s been so refreshing to see a TBI treated with a little more realism on the popular Netflix show Virgin River, and why that makes it worth talking about now. If you haven’t had a chance to start streaming this show or catch up on seasons 3 and 4, be warned that there are spoilers ahead if you keep reading.
We’re going to break down how Virgin River has elevated the way brain injuries are often portrayed in the media and pop culture by realistically looking at what suffering a TBI is actually like for the victim and for those around them. But we’ll also break down where this portrayal is still lacking, and share the true facts that you really need to know about brain injuries and how they can impact your life.
Portraying How a TBI Can Happen
Spoiler alert! At the end of season 3 of Virgin River, one of the show’s secondary characters named Hope McCrea is involved in a car crash that causes her to suffer a traumatic brain injury. It was a cliffhanger ending, leaving fans wondering if Hope would be back for season 4. And though she did make it back, she is not the same Hope they had come to know during the first three seasons of the show.
Virgin River did an accurate job of showing how a car crash can cause a TBI. Injuries to the brain can occur in a variety of ways during a car accident depending on the motion of the vehicle, the extent of damage to the car, and other factors. Such injuries can include:
- Open head injuries that wound the tissue, bone and brain
- Closed head injuries with no skull penetration (the most common in a vehicle crash)
- Deceleration injuries in which the brain is slammed back and forth inside the skull
- Lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, when a person’s blood flood is deprived of oxygen
- Stroke, which can result from other injuries and cause cell death and bleeding in the brain
In Virgin River, though viewers don’t actually see Hope’s car crash occur, a doctor later explains in the hospital that Hope hit her head hard enough during the accident to cause her brain to bleed. Now, even while under care at the hospital, her brain has continued to bleed and swell, causing concern that it could impact brain tissue and cause lasting damage or death. This is a very real scenario that sufferers of TBIs in real life often go through, and it can leave their loved ones having to make some tough decisions as the sufferer goes in and out of consciousness and is unable to make medical decisions for themselves.
Portraying the Effects of a TBI
As mentioned, though Hope survives the crash and is now heading down the road to recovery, she is not the same Hope in season 4 that she was in season 3. And this is one of the areas that Virgin River really shines when it comes to demonstrating what the effects of a TBI can look like for many real-life victims.
Within the first few scenes of the first episode of season 4, it’s clear that while Hope may look like she’s doing well (and after suffering a TBI like that, she truly is), she’s indeed struggling to fully recover. After a few days out of the hospital, she still suffers severe headaches, has no energy, no appetite, is irritable, and experiences issues with her balance that require a cane to help her move around. Her husband, who happens to be a doctor, tells her “Your brain is having trouble sensing where parts of her body are,” and that it’s an expected side effect of TBIs.
Though this inability to jump back into her regular life activities is killing Hope because she was previously such an active and independent person, it’s her ongoing memory issues that are really taking a toll on both her and the people who care for her. For example, Hope can’t remember that a very close friend has recently died. This is actually the same friend’s funeral Hope was on her way to attend when she got into her car accident. So now, it’s the burden of the people in Hope’s life to have to break this devastating news to her over and over again, or continuously remind her about other events that she can’t remember.
All of the above are very real and possible side effects that can occur in people who have suffered TBIs. The brain being the powerhouse of the body and all its functions, memories, and emotions means that when the brain is damaged, any number of other things can go wrong. Victims may not remember important events or people, may feel an overwhelming desire to isolate themselves, or their very personalities may become completely different than they were before the accident.
Portraying How a TBI Can Affect Others
Perhaps where Virgin River really does its most accurate portrayal of a real-life TBI situation is in the ways a TBI not only affects the victim, but how it can dramatically affect the other people in their life who are helping to care for them.
Hope’s husband—though estranged before this accident—comes to her aid during the course of season 4 while she recovers from her injuries. As a doctor, he feels particularly equipped to help his wife through her recovery process. And while that may be true in some ways, having in-depth medical knowledge isn’t always a surefire way to confidently bear the heartache of seeing someone you love suffer, or having to figure out how to pivot your life and yourself in order to care for them now.
As mentioned, having to remind Hope of painful memories is hard for her, but it’s extremely hard for her husband too. Also convincing his headstrong wife to continue seeing her neurologists and other doctors, even though Hope is fed up with doing so, makes him angry and frustrated. And trying to persuade her to reach out to those who still care about her, to spend time being social and leaning on others, becomes more of a chore than it’s ever been before, because Hope has changed. There is a severe emotional toll that comes with caring for someone who has suffered a TBI, and that can put stress on any relationship.
Those relationships include friendships too. Hope’s best of friends tiptoe around her after her accident, afraid to say anything that might make her upset or trigger tough conversations. Subsequently, Hope becomes frustrated with her friends in return, and is easily upset by the briefest of conversations and interactions. This is dramatically different from the personality she had before, and it causes strain and hardship for all involved.
The Inaccuracies of TBI Portrayal
As season 4 progresses, there is one major part of Hope’s journey of recovery that doesn’t quite display the accuracies of a TBI correctly—and that’s the length of that journey. Though we understand the importance of needing to move plotlines along in an effort to keep viewers’ attention, Hope recovers from her TBI and subsequent side effects at a much faster rate than is often reasonable to anticipate under similar real-life circumstances.
In an interview with Screenrant.com, Annette O’Toole, the actress who plays Hope, mentioned that while it was an eye-opening experience to play a character going through such trauma, she wanted viewers to understand that this particular part of her storyline was quite fictionalized. “She’s actually doing pretty well compared to most people who have these injuries,” O’Toole said in the interview. “The reality is coming back from [something like] that is a hard road. So, we’re taking a little bit of license in that with the time element, people can recover from these kinds of injuries, but [Hope’s] recovery time is very short!”
And this is very true. Not every victim of a TBI can walk around their home, hold conversations, or even be conscious within just a few short weeks of suffering their injury. It can take a lot of time and effort to regain basic motor functions, wrangle memories and emotions, and start to feel like some semblance of your normal self again—if that’s ever a possibility.
In the end, we want to applaud Virgin River for its serious look at what suffering a traumatic brain injury can truly mean. But we also want to make sure viewers know that what you see isn’t always what you get. So if you or a loved one has suffered a TBI, be sure to turn to a variety of resources for information and guidance through the trying times ahead.