The future of health care for veterans returning home from combat will include diagnosis and treatment of Post Traumatic Stress and other brain injuries.
It was standing room only at the fourth annual "The Brain at War" conference held at the Marines Memorial Club & Hotel in San Francisco on June 23. The all-day series of presentations and panel discussions focused upon the relatively new science of diagnosing and treating brain injuries.
Since the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq began almost a decade ago, the digital imaging technology that has advanced is helping doctors to map and understand the human brain like never before. This now allows doctors to document the physical affects of trauma upon the brain.
More than 15 guest speakers made presentations and talked about the impact technology is making upon the further development of brain and neurological studies.
Among those in the medical community who spoke like Dr. Thomas Neylan, MD, Dr. Paul Volberding, MD, Dr. Beth Cohen, MD, Dr. Sophia Vinogradov, MD, Dr. Karen Seal, MD and Michael Weiner, MD all point to the fact that the future of medical care for veterans will include brain health.
So much about the brain affects not only human behavior but day to day living, this is why seizing the opportunity that technology is providing for further study is so vital.
"We don't get any vital details from studying the dead," said Weiner. He noted to those in attendance which included fellow researchers, physicians, medical professionals and military personnel, "studying the dead only shows us that the disease or injury has taken its course."
Weiner stressed how important it is to examine the brain and neurological system of the living. Digital technology allows doctors, nurses and researchers to do that in a non invasive way. "The brain is the last area for observation and testing. We are moving towards early detection in many cases," he said.
Weiner noted that in the situation of Alzheimer's disease researchers have been able to study it for 20 years. Once seldom heard of, it is now a common subject. Weiner noted that understanding the part of the brain called the "hippocampus" is crucial, because it is the memory function part of the brain. "the hippocampus is the learning part of the brain," he said.
Head injury or brain injury potentially leads to an early on-set of Alzheimer's, he noted. This is why early detection and intervention is so important.
The doctors, researchers and staff at this conference wanted to get the message out that brain health is part of integrative medicine. Former House of Representatives member Patrick Kennedy was in San Francisco to speak at the conference that Thursday. He also made an appearance at a afternoon press conference the day before on Wednesday to announce and 'kick-off' the Brain at War one-day conference of guest speakers and panel discussions.
As this reporter noted previously in a report posted on June 23, Kennedy has distinguished his career in the US House of Representatives as someone who is advocating for advancements and improvements in mental health. He supports the work of the NCIRE - Veterans Health Research Institute which sponsors the Brain at War conference each year.
Kennedy believes that mental health and physical health are one and that health insurance companies and health care providers must recognize that as a fact. He has worked to promote legislation that calls attention to the need for greater and better care for mental health.
As he told the press on June 23, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other injuries to the brain is physical and so the medical system needs to provide care and treatment for such conditions. Also at that press conference along with Dr. Neylan was Navy SEAL, James Hatch.
He was among the guest speakers at yesterday's conference on Thursday. He gave testimony to how important the work the military and the medical community are doing to address and treat conditions of PTSD and brain injury.
He was one of the few that received a standing ovation when he walked up to the lecture podium to speak. Hatch said he was honored to serve alongside those in the special operations community, carrying out more than 150 direct action missions in the Middle East.
Behind the podium was two large screens displaying a photo of him the night he was wounded in 2009. A bullet went through his leg and it was the first time he was seriously injured in his two-decades of service. "I tried not to scream, but it burned and really hurt," he said.
Hatch described himself as 'warrior on the ground' and what he lived for was to be out there fighting for the nation. Being wounded was not on his itinerary. He struggled to get back onto the field to be with his unit.
He is thankful for all the people who helped save his life and his leg. But after more than 16 surgeries and difficult stages of recuperation time, he was suffering mentally. He felt like a failure, he got extremely depressed and tried to commit suicide.
"Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem that impacts everyone else in your life," he said. Fortunately with the help of his wife and many others he was able to get back on his feet and establish a new path for his military career.
Now, retired he works to help other veterans like himself by telling his story and providing some helpful guidelines for recovery. One important step is to get help. Despite the slight limp Hatch is still very formidable.
He admitted to the audience he likes being a fighting machine and was always eager to get back to the battlefield. Yet, he realizes that such high-level military action attitude is part of the difficulty that so many veterans face upon returning home to civilian life.
Brian Sloan of the mental health & outreach program of the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed as he said to this reporter, "our military force is a volunteer one." "Many are eager to get back because they feel that is where they belong with their unit," said Sloan.
This sense of needing to be back with the unit or on the battlefield is common among veterans. For as Hatch said in his presentation, everyday relationships among civilians (after the experience of the battlefield) seem "fluffy." They lack the significant intensity that life on the battlefield once had.
Sloan noted that helping veterans assimilate back to civilian life is an important aspect of restoring their complete health. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan new procedures and protocols are being set in place so that soldiers who have been in extensive combat are not sent back to battle so easily.
For example if a solider becomes unconscious after a blast, that is usually a sign of trauma to the brain. New technology allows for breakthroughs in diagnostics and treatment. And, helps to establish new rules of procedure and protocol to help protect and maintain those on the front lines.
"Many soldiers are eager to go back," said Sloan. He also noted that despite the eagerness of many of the soldiers and troops, "we don't have an endless supply."
This is why keeping them healthy is so important noted Sloan.
Since its inauguration in 2008, "The Brain at War" conference has grown into a premier summit of extraordinary leaders and advocates from many institutions and fields of expertise. For more information about how technology is helping to improve the lives of veterans and the need for more funding and research visit the NCIRE web site or Dept. of Veterans Affairs.