Brain injuries: doctor battles stigma
March 12, 2009
HEIDELBERG, Germany (Army News Service, March 11, 2009) - She's tired. Frustrated. Ready to give up.
Or is she'
"It has been such a fight, but the guys deserve it," said Maj. Shawna Scully, the Army's senior neurologist in Europe. She was fighting off her own sort of compassion fatigue in a telephone interview. She had just delayed the call because a patient who flat-out needed her help had come in - and she couldn't say, "No."
Scully's "fight" is the three-year learning process she has gone through to better understand the dynamics of a battlefield wound - Traumatic Brain Injury - and the culture that used to shun the idea of seeking help. To her, it's not enough to just understand. She wants her "guys" to get well. To be better than ever.
"It used to be I would see Soldiers who had been sent to hospital for a chapter physical," she explained, referring to examinations given to Soldiers who, according to their commanders, were unfit for duty. "They would come to me because they would report to one of the initial screeners that they had recurring headaches. As I saw more and more of them, I saw a pattern emerging."
Scully is the neurology consultant for the Europe Regional Medical command and chief neurologist at the Army's busiest healthcare gateway at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany. She described Soldier after Soldier reporting the same types of problems.
They had all been "blown up," she said, exposed to blasts from terrorist weapons or knocked unconscious by blows to the head. They couldn't sleep. They couldn't focus on their jobs. They weren't the same people they had been before - often superior Soldiers before being sent into war's cauldron.
"A chapter is more like a screaming train pulling out of the station, and to get them stopped you sometimes have to throw yourself across the tracks," she said. "It is this soldier's career on the line because someone said they 'didn't have what it took' anymore and were being kicked out in disgrace. It can be hard to reverse that process."
But she persevered and stood her ground.
"I was fed up with seeing good people going out into the world," she said.
Working with other equally compassionate professionals, she and the Army began to develop treatment programs, screening tools and educational programs for Soldiers, leaders and families. The Army and news media began to get out the word about TBI.
"Today, we are getting Soldiers from commanders who, instead of saying 'this guy is broke, get rid of him' are saying, 'this guy is stellar, get him back for me.' It's been an interesting time, these last three years," she said, with understatement lying just below the surface tension in her voice.
Scully said that the best part of the world of TBI is that Soldiers who seek treatment on their own now - and there are more of them every day - come away actually better than before.
"If you seek treatment, there is a very distinct chance you will come away more resilient, more empathetic, more organized and more focused than you have ever been in your life," said Scully, passion rising in her voice. "Not only do you become a better Soldier, you become a better person than you ever were before."
Is she tired' Is she frustrated' Has she really given up'
"Before you go,' she said over the phone, 'there's something else on my mind."
"We need to become aware of what is happening in our own back yard," she said, climbing through the ropes back into the ring. "I drive by the skate park, and I see children (who are) doing flips 14 feet into the air. They are not wearing a helmet. It's hard to look a parent in the eye and tell them their child has a skull fracture."
She said that if the Army can do so many things for its Soldiers - its most precious asset - that she sees no reason why parents can't do the same sort of thing.
"I tell parents they need to protect the most precious thing they have: their child's future. These are tomorrow's leaders. They are the most precious thing we have," Scully said.
(Phil Tegtmeier serves with European Regional Medical Command Public Affairs.)