Features

Broken brains

"Broken brains" Continued...

Issue: "Another dark day in America," Jan. 12, 2013

Holt was not the only soldier trying to navigate a confusing new world and determined to avoid seeking help. Every morning when Donald Jarvis applied his deodorant three or four times or brushed his teeth two or three times, his roommate would laugh. “You just did that like 10 minutes ago,” his roommate would say to a skeptical Jarvis.

There was a reason why Jarvis, 26, even had a roommate in his apartment at Fort Belvoir, Va. One week after he tried living alone, he began cooking a package of Ramen noodles and then went to bed. He woke up when the fire alarm went off. To his surprise smoke had filled the apartment. He’d forgotten about the noodles.

This is the new life Jarvis leads, “since I’ve been blown up,” as he often describes it. Last February, during a patrol in Afghanistan, a 250-pound homemade bomb exploded over the mine-protected clearance vehicle, called a Buffalo, driven by Jarvis, an Army specialist. The blast knocked the six-wheel, 13-foot-tall, 76,000-pound vehicle onto its side.

Returning home, Jarvis battled daily headaches that escalated in intensity as the day progressed. Bright lights, sudden noises, and loud crowds left him overwhelmed. The mix of forgetfulness, headaches, and confusion left Jarvis frustrated and easily angered.

He found it harder to endure his injuries because, no matter how hard he tried to explain his symptoms and feelings to others, he saw glimpses of doubt in their eyes. “If I were to lose a limb, I’d only have one arm so you’d kind of notice,” Jarvis said.  “Although we may appear to be good, the damage is on the inside. You may not see it, but we feel it. We notice that our life is different. I have kind of just accepted it for what it is worth. What else can you do?”

Heechin Chae, the chief of the Department of Traumatic Brain Injury at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, says this frustration is common among TBI sufferers. The added mental stress often slows down recovery. That healing process, Chae adds, is further impeded by one of the biggest obstacles to treating TBI: the inability of its sufferers to admit they need help. Such invisible scars are easier to hide than physical disabilities, especially on the battlefield.

John Butler, a commercial fisherman from New Bedford, Mass., who joined the Army soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, survived a 120-pound bomb blasting just several meters behind Butler’s armored vehicle. Soon after the August 2011 incident Butler, 31, could neither drive nor walk in a straight line. Despite his symptoms, Butler fought to remain deployed in Afghanistan. He often hid at the sprawling military base from any officer who had the power to send him home.

“I just kept getting on patrols and doing the best I could to stay with my platoon,” Butler said. “I feel very lucky that I was able to stay in the fight. That was the key. I mean, you are a team.”

Back home one year later, Butler has to hold onto walls to keep his balance when he walks. Things around him seem to be in motion. When other people are present Butler will stop and look. If no one is staring at him then he knows he must be walking straight.

Butler once tried driving at night. He kept thinking that the lights of the cars coming the other way were headed right toward him. He worried that he wasn’t driving straight enough to stay on his side. At one point he stopped eight times to refocus before reaching his destination. It left him shaking for more than an hour.

“I didn’t want to say anything because I don’t want people to think I’m some whack job who’s going to freak out at any second,” Butler said. “I don’t want to be looked at in that way. Part of me feels like some of it is never going to come back. Some people have a bad knee, I’ve got a bad brain.”

The military medical community has spent the last several years convincing TBI sufferers like Butler that their bad brains can heal with the proper therapy.

Granted, there are extreme cases of TBI that include prolonged, sometimes indefinite, loss of consciousness. In these cases, the brain is not able to orchestrate the basic mental tasks of daily living. Caregivers are required to assist with activities eating and bathing. Some of these patients may be able to open their eyes and even recognize the presence of another person in the room, but they have lost the ability to communicate.

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