Injury Center Treats New Affliction of Terror War
rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices are
taking their toll on deployed U.S. troops’ bodies. What’s not
as easily recognizable is the damage these weapons are doing to servicemembers’ brains.
injury, or TBI, is becoming an increasingly common affliction
of the war on terror. It’s affecting troops with injuries
ranging from mild concussions to unconsciousness or coma, doctors
at the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center here at Walter
Reed Army Medical Center told the AFPS.
Dr. Louis French,
a neuropsychologist at the center, said improved body armor “is
doing a wonderful job of saving lives” and reducing the
rate of internal injuries on the battlefield.
But even with
Kevlar helmets, there’s a critical organ this protective
gear simply doesn’t adequately protect: the gelatin-like
brain material that can shift violently inside the skull when
confronted by explosions, sudden jolts or shock waves from blasts.
which also typically occurs during vehicle accidents and falls,
can stretch and tear nerve fibers or bruise the inside of the
brain, explained Dr. Deborah Warden, director of the Defense
and Veterans Brain Injury Center.
like what happens when a quarterback gets sacked and sees stars,
or when someone hits the windshield in a car,” she said.
Often there’s no visible sign of an injury, and even magnetic
resonance imagery doesn’t pick it up. “But you see
it on a microscopic level,” French said.
run the gamut, from slower reaction times to severe emotional
and cognitive problems. Affected troops often report headaches,
sensitivity to light or noise, dizziness or nausea. But many
also experience the less-obvious symptoms of depression, irritability,
insomnia or loss of memory or problem-solving abilities, the
doctors said. In more severe cases, victims can lose their eyesight
and their ability to walk and talk.
The good news,
the doctors said, is that if the injury is detected and treated
early, most victims can recover full brain function, or at least
return to relatively normal lives.
are doing “a remarkable job” of offering sophisticated
medical care close to the point of injury, French said, including
conducting initial screenings for brain injury when possible.
these hospitals initially focus is on saving lives and evacuating
patients for more advanced care if necessary, but they’ve
become increasingly aware of the symptoms of traumatic brain
injury and the value of early battlefield intervention, French
intervention begins with simple questioning: What happened? Was
there any period of time that you don’t remember what happened?
help identify whether the patient has experienced a concussion
or mild form of traumatic brain injury, the doctors explained.
With a short period of rest, ideally away from the frontlines,
these patients often recover within a few hours or days, they
Reed Center helps identify undiagnosed cases of brain injury
and treats patients with more severe cases.
serves as the headquarters for other centers focused specifically
on treating traumatic brain injuries, all overseen by Warden.
They are at Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force
Base, Texas; Naval Medical Center San Diego; and Department of
Veterans Affairs facilities in Richmond, Va.; Tampa, Fla.; Minneapolis,
Minn.; and Palo Alta, Calif. A civilian re-entry program in Charlottesville,
Va., is also part of the program.
At the Walter
Reed brain center, doctors screen each new casualty list to determine
who’s been injured due to explosions, vehicle accidents
or falls and may have developed a brain injury. They arrange
personal interviews with high-risk patients and prescribe treatments
that frequently include physical and psychological therapy to
heal the brain.
it’s also effective to treat the symptoms, such as prescribing
drugs to help affected troops deal with insomnia or depression,
and other therapies help, there’s “no magic bullet” that
cures brain injuries, she said.
severe cases undergo a long healing process, sometimes requiring
speech and occupational therapy to relearn basic skills. Some
may find that while they’re able to return to work, they
can no longer do the same job, Warden said.
who appear to recover fully may experience some long-term symptoms,
the doctors explained. At work, they may find they’re not
as capable of taking on extra projects or demands. Some find
that the reserve they once drew on to meet these challenges is
no longer there, Warden said.
over to their personal lives, as well, she said. People who have
experienced brain injuries may take longer to do simple things
such as coming up with the correct change in the checkout line
at the grocery store.
people do well, but they may find that they need to make modifications
in their lives,” she said. “(Traumatic brain injury)
can be a life-altering experience.”
Petty Officer James Miner knows firsthand just how life-altering
brain injuries can be. A severe sandstorm blew him off a Conex
container in Iraq in June 2003, the fall putting the Seabee into
a coma. When he gained consciousness, he could no longer walk
or talk, had lost much of his vision and no longer knew Phon
Miner, his wife of 12 years.
since made strong progress, but said it wasn’t easy or
fast. “It took me a long time on parallel bars to be able
to walk again,” said Miner. Last week, he skied for the
first time since his injury, wearing a “blind skier” bib
and getting coached by the sighted instructor at his side during
the 19th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic at Snowmass
so proud of him,” Phon said of her husband’s progress. “He
had to relearn everything, and he’s gone through so much.
This is a really big step forward for him.”
the ranks of other victims of traumatic brain injury who are
making steady progress.
1st Sgt. Colin Rich, a soldier in the 504th Parachute Infantry
Regiment who was shot in the head while serving in Afghanistan
in December 2001. The round went through Rich’s Kevlar
helmet, which slowed its momentum, then ricocheted, shattering
part of his skull.
at a Hamburg, Germany, hospital within 15 hours of being shot
and arrived at Walter Reed’s brain center for follow-on
treatment. He was released from the hospital in early 2002 for
30 days of convalescent leave, still suffering headaches, ringing
in his ears and impaired eyesight, but eventually was able to
return to active duty.
of treating troops like Miner and Rich “is enormous,” Warden
said, and their cases are providing insights that will help future
victims of traumatic brain injuries — both military and
like a very important thing that we’re doing,” agreed
French. “These people have made tremendous sacrifices and
deserve the best care. Ensuring that they get what they need
means a lot. It’s a remarkable feeling.”