Some studies have shown that as many as 20 percent of Iraq’s injured suffer head trauma, making brain damage the “signature” injury of the war. A center in Charlottesville contracts with the Department of Defense to rehabilitate hundreds of those injured.
Virginia NeuroCare is the only non-Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital to treat patients who are under the care of the military’s DVBIC, or Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in January 2003, the DVBIC has seen 1,529 brain injuries. Virginia NeuroCare is a two-storey, house-like building on High Street. There, an interdisciplinary team consisting of psychologists, clinical psychologists, two speech therapists, physicians and occupational therapists treats 10 or 11 patients at a time for 24 hours a day. Their executive director, Don Nidiffer, is also on staff with the department of psychiatric medicine at UVA.
Injured soldiers are stabilized at other war hospitals and then sent to the center, where they convalesce as much as possible. Soldiers recovering from head trauma are tested on a gamut of skills before they’re released to an assisted-living facility or to independent life.
But, only 35 percent of brain-injured soldiers ever return to active duty, Nidiffer says. And, according DVBIC estimates, 10 percent will be in nursing homes permanently.
The State, a South Carolina paper, recently reported on a soldier treated at Virginia NeuroCare. Army Staff Sargeant Raymond Lee suffered head trauma when his Humvee flipped from a roadside bomb. At first, doctors said he would be at the level of a 5-year-old for the rest of his life. While Lee is actually much higher-functioning, he is now divorced due to not being able to remember his wife. Improvised explosive devices like the one that injured Lee have caused 37 percent of U.S. fatalities so far, according to the Iraq Coalition casualty count at icasualties.org.
Nidiffer says it’s hard to talk about full recovery when it comes to brain injuries. “Independence is a relative question,” Nidiffer says. He adds, “We define things in terms of relative gains.” He mentions the story of a man who entered the center in a wheelchair and, by the time he left, regained limited abilities to walk independently. “Big progress? I think so. It all depends on how you define it.”