Smart Watch Calls 911 After Winfield Man Suffers Head Injury

Northwestern Medicine
Neurosciences November 29, 2021
It’s a Christmas gift that keeps on giving. The Apple watch Boyd Roberts’ children gave him may have saved him from serious harm. The 73-year-old Winfield resident was alone at home when he fell and was knocked unconscious. The fall detection feature on his Apple watch triggered an alert to 911. Winfield police responded and found Roberts disoriented and bleeding from the head.

An ambulance rushed Roberts to Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, where a CT scan revealed a contusion on his brain, a form of traumatic brain injury that causes bleeding and swelling. Physicians quickly controlled his blood pressure to prevent additional bleeding and pressure inside his skull.

“The watch saved him,” said Osaama H. Khan, MD, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “Without prompt medical attention, Mr. Roberts could have hurt himself further, or his neurological condition may have worsened.”

Boyd’s wife, Susan, encouraged their children to buy the watch for their father at Christmas specifically for the fall detection feature because he had fallen in the past, once breaking a few ribs. The Robertses agree that the watch has given them both more independence.

“I used to be afraid to leave him alone,” said Susan. “Now, I can run errands without worrying too much.”

“She doesn’t have to hover over me so much,” Boyd joked. But his tone turned more serious when discussing his main motivation for getting the watch.

“When you fall, your pride kicks in, and you don’t want to bother the first responders,” said Boyd. “That pride is preempted by the autodetection because you don’t have to activate the 911 call. Or, as was in my case, you are unable to call 911.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention*, more than 800,000 patients are hospitalized each year because of a fall, most often with a head injury or hip fracture.

Boyd spent several days in the hospital to be monitored for the head injury and tested to determine whether another health condition caused him to pass out or fall. He had a small loop recorder implanted just under the skin of his chest to continuously monitor his heart rhythm and help clinicians make a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan.

“The data, which is transmitted wirelessly to our offices while Mr. Roberts is at home, will tell us if there is a cardiac abnormality that is causing him to fall,” said Todd T. Tomson, MD, cardiac electrophysiologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.

Boyd quickly returned to his active life, volunteering at a local elementary school and serving as the president of his homeowners association. The fifth-grade students he tutors sent him math problems to keep his brain sharp and jokes to keep him laughing.

“Mr. Roberts’ story shows that the fall detection feature can be helpful for those at risk of falling,” said Dr. Tomson. “He clearly received medical attention much sooner than if he didn’t have it.”

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