Austin woman channels creativity, near-death experience into brain injury prevention

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In August 2018, Austin resident Leah Chyma was scootering through downtown Austin after dinner with friends. A few days later, she woke up in the shock trauma unit in a nearby hospital: with a traumatic brain injury, three skull fractures, three brain bleeds and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The odds were not in her favor as she battled excessive bleeding in her brain, hooked up to a respirator as her heartbeat plummeted down to 30 beats per minute. But somehow, Chyma beat the odds and is now using her second chance at life to save the lives of others.

“If I wouldn’t have been in the physical shape that I was, I wouldn’t have made it,” she said. “It was shaky for a while. So I’m very blessed to have come out alive.”

Chyma created Knockin’ Noggins in March 2020, a helmet company designed to promote brain health and safety and destigmatize helmet wearing in children and adults. Each helmet is customized and hand painted to fit the design preferences, and needs, of customers.

Chyma designs helmets for most non-motorized sports, including biking, skateboarding, rollerblading, penny boarding and even acrobatic yoga. She has also created DOC band helmets for babies with plagiocephaly, or flat spots on babies’ heads.

In launching a business just before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Chyma said it was touch and go for a while. However, as interest in outdoor activities have increased, she said sales have picked up at Knockin’ Noggins, with more than 130 helmets created.

Her customers have ranged in age from 3 years old to 70 years old. Their interest vary just as greatly: Previous designs created include unicorns and Thor’s hammer for kids, as well as Texas-themed pieces and a Grateful Dead design for adults.

Chyma said her favorite part of the design process is getting little glimpses into people’s lives and personalities that she might not otherwise learn about.

“I love it so much. People that you know, in no other way would really interact with me, you get to help bring their vision to life too,” she said. “You’re creating a little piece of art.”

Alongside the creative energy funneled into each helmet, Chyma said she’s fueled by a desire to reduce stigmas surrounding helmet wearing. Knockin’ Noggins compiles educational resources for customers on misconceptions around helmet wearing, how to properly wear a helmet and statistics on brain injuries in patients with and without helmets.

“From a personal experience, I could have prevented mental health issues by putting a helmet on my head,” she said. “So by kind of being a walking billboard for for it for a personal experience, I think it’s extremely important.”

“It definitely brought out more of the small moments in life that are just beautiful and wonderful and not always chasing for something. I had found myself falling into that workaholic mindset, trying to keep going, keep going, keep going — and then realizing the most happy that I am and those around me are, are when we slow down.”

LEAH CHYMA, FOUNDER, KNOCKIN’ NOGGINS

With this second lease on life, Chyma said the prospect of giving back to those in need has become all the more prevalent. For every 10 helmets created, Knockin’ Noggins donates one to a child in need. The business partners with local children’s organizations to match children with a customized design of choice.

“We’re able to customize them with the child’s name and some interests that they have. And these are kids who are dealt a very hard hand at life,” she said. “So to be able to give some child something that’s their own with their name on it? It’s absolutely beautiful.”

As the business grows, Chyma said she’s currently working to outfit a van to serve as a travel pop-up shop to sell at festivals, farmers markets and other larger-scale events. But beyond the evolutions of the business to come, she said she’s most excited about being connected and present in life, a sentiment she said she lacked prior to her accident.

“I was blessed at a second chance of life, and it kind of flipped my whole world upside down and change a lot of things,” she said. “And it really got me thinking of the fact that we have a short time here, so I wanted to do something to help others extend their time here.”

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