The year 2019, although barely half over, has already given Americans a number of special occasions to celebrate our patriotism. Memorial Day, the 4th of July, the 75th anniversary of D-Day have all been times to give thanks for the blessings we share in a free and independent land, but particularly to honor the men and women who sacrificed so much in defense of those freedoms. To my mind, however, those special days aren’t really sufficient. Our attention and concern for America’s veterans should be a 24/7 obligation.
So many of America’s heroes gave their lives in service to our country, while others came home with terrible injuries to body and mind. Sadly, many continue to suffer to this day from the scars of battle, including thousands who struggle with one of the most devastating but least visible scars of all: traumatic brain injury or TBI. In fact, nearly 450,000 combat veterans came back from Iraq or Afghanistan suffering from TBI, the aftermath of an improvised explosive device, rocket-propelled grenade or artillery barrage.
But unlike most other combat wounds, TBI is a hidden injury with no telling signs or outward symptoms. Its physical and mental damage is hidden deep inside each victim, lurking as a dark disturbance of the mind – often causing blurred vision, depression and the dreadful feeling that a once-vigorous brain is running off its tracks.
As a physician, and someone who has seen the devastating effects of TBI on a close member of my family, I know first-hand the helpless, haunted feelings of those afflicted with this condition. I also know the stress and sorrow TBl places on their families as well, watching their loved ones struggle to return to some semblance of a normal civilian life.
Brain-injured veterans who fight to regain a sense of way their minds used work will too often find their only relief in alcohol or a dangerous overdependence on prescription drugs. Far worse, they may turn to addictive opiates, entering a downward spiral that can lead to unemployment, homelessness, imprisonment and early death. For far too many, suicide becomes the only way to stop the inner pain of TBI.
Yet so much – perhaps all – of this pain and tragic loss could be ended if our heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan would have a chance to get a proper diagnosis for TBI, along with the proper treatment and support services they deserve. But because their TBI is to the rest of us an invisible wound, the right kinds of treatment are seldom made available. Our TBI-wounded veterans are left to feel they’ve been forgotten by the nation they once served.
That’s why I am active as a member of the Resurrecting Lives Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to seeing that combat veterans with TBI receive expert medical care, rehabilitation and community support services they need for a successful return to civilian life. As vice chair of the Resurrecting Lives board, I am committed to achieving that goal.
I want others to share that commitment as well. Know the symptoms of TBI: headache, blurred vision, difficulty with bright lights, ringing in the ears, excessive tiredness, memory loss or poor concentration. As a friend, family member or coworker of a veteran, you may not see these signs outwardly, but a veteran may tell you or show telltale signs. If you’re a combat veteran yourself, the symptoms of TBI may already be there. Whenever these symptoms appear, the answer is clear. See medical help for yourself or your loved one as soon as possible, because with proper treatment TBI is treatable and its symptoms can be managed.
No single holiday – nor a month of holidays – will ever be sufficient for honoring the veterans who have done so much to assure us of that freedom, especially those battling to overcome the mental and physical scars of combat, including TBI. For those who struggle these combat-related injuries, your continuing attention can be a lifesaver.
Dr. Christopher Brown, vice chair of the Resurrecting Lives Foundation, received his medical degree and a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He completed his residency and internship at The Ohio State University Medical Center and is currently an internal medicine specialist in Columbus.