WASHINGTON – The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs said Wednesday he would like to see mandatory “de-boot camp,or decompression” evaluations for soldiers returning from active duty to screen them for traumatic brain injuries that can go undiagnosed.
“There are some things we have to do as policy makers. One of those would be,we have to have mandatory evaluations of every soldier,” said Rep. Bob Filner,D-Calif. He spoke to a symposium of medical experts,researchers and soldiers' families.
The three-hour discussion was a sounding board for Filner and his committee. He asked for the panel's “gut reaction” to his suggestion. The session was also an outlet for experts and families to vent their gripes about the treatment for traumatic brain injury,or TBI.
While some injuries are obvious,military personnel also suffer from post traumatic stress and physical injuries that didn't initially seem connected to brain injuries.
Patients and their families,many of the experts agreed,often do not know what medical services are available to them,or how to navigate a system with three different treatment providers – the Department of Defense,Veterans Affairs and private practices.
In particular,the system tends to “fall apart” when patients are discharged from hospitals,said Dr. Ronald M. Ruff,a San Francisco clinical neurophysiologist.
Eighty percent of veterans who require medical treatment do not live near VA hospitals,where they would likely find the best treatment,he said.
“It's inappropriate for them to be traveling back and forth when they should be with their family… we need to bring these services to them,” Ruff said.
Yet having access to the best facilities doesn't guarantee red tape-free treatment.
Justin Bunce,22 a retired Marine corporal survived a shrapnel injury to the brain during his second tour of duty in Iraq in March 2004 but lost an eye.
His father,Peter J. Bunce,has taken on the role of case manager and advocate for his son,choosing between rehabilitation facilities and the best course of treatment. But he is frustrated with the lack of interaction among his son's doctors.
As his son recovered,doctors had him walk on a broken leg because they were focused more on his brain injury,Bunce said. And in more than three years,he hasn't found a doctor who can take a “holistic approach” to evaluating the eight medications Justin takes each day to determine which he actually needs,and how the drugs interact with each other.
“I worry about the folks who… don't have a strong care-giving network,” Bunce said.
Dave Woodruff,older brother of Bob Woodruff,the ABC News anchor who suffered a severe brain injury in Iraq in 2006,when his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb,also testified as chairman of the Bob Woodruff Family Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury.
Bob Woodruff spent five weeks in a medically induced coma at Bethesda Naval Hospital before he began a year-long recovery process that inspired him to produce “From Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports” – a one-hour report recounting personal stories of veterans also recovering from TBIs.
His brother was “blessed” with a commitment from military medical services,his employer and family,”but not having to navigate the bureaucracy” many injured veterans reporting facing,Dave Woodruff said.
The committee also discussed providing respite care for families who tend to TBI patients at home and legislation to ensure patients aren't denied medical benefits when their recovery progress plateaus.
“I think the yellow ribbon needs to be longer,” said Jim C. Shraa,a psychologist with the Brain Injury Association of America. “We need to tie ourselves to these people forever because they were going to give up everything they had to serve this country.”