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Jack Sisson's TBI Blog

A hug is duct tape for the soul.


Alex Grimes ascends the two-story climbing wall at the Center for Integrated Brain Health & Wellness with relative ease, quickly rappelling down so he can rise again.

His climb out of the anger, despair and pain after a brain injury while in the Army has been far more grueling – 3 1/2 long years so far.

Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as well, he's struggling with mood swings, nightmares and seizures as he juggles his treatment with classes at a local community college.

But now that Grimes has a refuge for therapy and counseling, he hopes he's finally found his footing in his recovery. "I'm trying to have a sense of normalcy," he told me. "I'm trying to find some sort of peace."

You can't help but be humbled hearing the stories of veterans like Grimes, and be impressed seeing their rehabilitation. That respect deepens when you think that precisely because of the kinds of wounds they suffered while protecting the rest of us, they could also help society now that they're finally home.

You also can't help but feel some outrage that it has taken so long for the government to get its act together to help vets with traumatic brain injury – the so-called signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It has victimized tens of thousands of the 2.4 million men and women who have fought over the last decade, but it took until the last few years to start properly diagnosing and treating a sizable number.

"Overall, it's gotten a lot better. But the fact remains they came too late to the party," says Tom Tarantino, deputy policy director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Grimes, 24, suffered a non-combat head injury in 2008 and, after four years in the military, received a medical discharge in 2010. He says he didn't really get the treatment he needed until he came to the Martinez campus of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Now, he's one of 350 veterans under care at the new $7.2 million brain health center. In military-speak, it is the "tip of the spear" in combating traumatic brain injury – a one-stop center for both treatment and research, focusing on milder cases. If there's a big breakthrough in the next few years, it could very well happen in the bland-looking building nestled in the hills of Martinez.

And because 1.7 million Americans a year suffer brain injuries from falls, car wrecks and the like – about three-fourths of them also with mild concussions – any advances could have much wider benefits.

In addition, some of the research under way could help scientists studying brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Still, military combat is different. Long and repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan increased the risk of being exposed to roadside bombs and other blasts, even multiple times. The effects, especially over the long term, of the brain being rattled inside the skull by explosions are not very well understood; symptoms for vets with mild traumatic brain injury seem to last longer, 18 to 24 months on average.

"It's a difficult thing to get a complete handle on mild TBI," says Daniel Barrows, the TBI social worker at the center. "It's constantly a learning process."

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