News: Sky soldiers open Afghanistan’s first mild traumatic brain injury clinic
Story by Staff Sgt. Bruce Cobbeldick
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHANK, Afghanistan - The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s medical team launched the first mild traumatic brain injury clinic for in-theater assessments and treatments at Forward Operating Base Shank, Afghanistan, in June of this year.
U.S. Army Capt. Erik Johnson, an occupational therapist with the 173rd ABCT and Little Rock, Ark., native, helped spearhead the clinic to treat soldiers who suffer from traumatic brain injuries from combat. The goal is to have the soldiers recover and return to their unit without the delays that previously kept soldiers out of theater for evaluations or treatment, he said.
The new clinic is the first of its kind here in Afghanistan, said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Melissa Potter, the medical operations non-commissioned officer in charge of the 173rd ABCT, from Virginia Beach, Va.
The program allows soldiers to stay at the clinic and receive treatment with Johnson and his assistant, U.S. Army Spc. Jessica Rivera-Mendoza, from New Castle, Del., for up to 14 days. It lets soldiers get back in the fight and rejoin their units sooner than ever before.
“In the past, they would be medically evacuated out of theater,” Johnson said. “This is the first clinic of its kind. Our treatment program is definitely helping the 173rd identify symptoms as early as possible. It’s great to see these soldiers make comebacks like this.”
The pilot program has caught the attention of military leaders at the Pentagon, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, due to its tremendous contributions in reducing the time it takes to get soldiers treated and returned to duty, said Johnson.
“Once a combat medic determines that there are signs of any head trauma, the soldier is referred to the mTBI Clinic for treatment here,” said U.S. Army Spc. Ashley Marie Bordges, a medic with Brigade Support Battalion, 173rd ABCT.
Headaches, irritability, short-term memory loss and troubles with problem-solving skills are some of the most common symptoms that medics encounter following a minor traumatic brain injury, Johnson said.
U.S. Army Sgt. James Doyle Triplett, from Lawton, Okla., came to the clinic with concentration problems after his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. He said that he had some difficulties thinking clearly, but Johnson and Bordges helped him improve dramatically.
To help patients, Johnson ensures that the clinic environment is a comfortable, quiet space that will make soldiers feel at home and help them relax and rest. Letting the brain calm down after an IED or rocket propelled grenade attack is an essential part of the therapy.
U.S. Army Maj. Jay Baker, the 173rd ABCT Surgeon, from Escondido, Ca., said, “The program is ideal because exposing soldiers to occupational therapy and new techniques like winding down time, resting in a dark quiet place for 24-48 hours and receiving medical or psychological help have proved to be highly effective.”
“In the past, soldiers suffering from mTBI were sent back to home station due to the lack of a solid treatment plan, and the units were also losing soldiers due to poor follow-ups (post-deployment),” Baker said.
But with a facility dedicated to mTBI treatment and a tracking system, no soldiers here slip through the cracks, Potter said. This also identifies high-risk soldiers and ensures that they receive follow up screenings after they return from deployment.
Treatment and recovery is also effective here because the patients will receive mTBI care with the support of their units nearby, without worry or guilt for having to leave to get treatment back in the U.S. or out of theater.
A close relationship between the doctor and patients also makes mTBI treatment at FOB Shank unique and successful.
“Captain Johnson is completely dedicated to his job and the soldiers,” said Potter. “Because he is dedicated to the mTBI clinic, he is able to personalize his treatment plans and really get to know the soldiers. He makes his patients feel at home and a part of the team. Soldiers are comfortable talking to him and coming to the clinic to receive care.”.
“Soldiers tell me all the time that when they were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in the past, they never had this program before, Johnson said. “It is a very important program for our patients. So far, about 150 soldiers have come to the clinic for treatment and 100 percent have been returned to duty, Johnson said.
“We are doing some innovative things here and making some breakthroughs that lead the way in terms of treating these kind of traumatic brain injuries,” said U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Nicholas Rolling, command sergeant major of the 173rd ABCT, from Camarillo, Ca. “What they have done with this clinic is awesome.”