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Air Force Center Serves Soldiers With Brain Injuries

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 9, 2008 – The Air Force’s only traumatic brain injury center, at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, is diagnosing and treating predominantly Army patients with a focus on improving their chances of a full recovery.

The center began as an ad-hoc clinic in February 2007 to treat redeploying soldiers at neighboring Fort Richardson, Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Peter Osterbauer, chief of neurology services for the 3rd Medical Group, told American Forces Press Service.

The Army mobilized a team of 13 medical specialists to help the Air Force screen and treat the 25th Infantry Division’s 1st Stryker Brigade soldiers for several months after their return from Iraq. Their unit deployed to Iraq as part of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, but was reflagged shortly after its late-2006 redeployment.

Less than two years after its initial standup, the clinic has expanded into a full-fledged TBI center that has treated more than 1,300 patients, Osterbauer said. The center continues to screen about 10 more a week who report on a redeployment survey that they have experienced a head injury or lost consciousness.

A 10-member civilian staff – two neurologists, four medical technicians, a nurse case manager, nurse practitioner, social worker and speech therapist – provides continuity and ensures patients who require additional care receive it quickly and without having to go outside the military system, he said.

“One of the best things I see of having a designated TBI center is that before, after we screened them, we had to send them [to downtown Anchorage] for cognitive rehabilitation,” Osterbauer said. “Now, we’re able to treat them here, where I know they patients I care about are getting cared for the way they should.”

Traumatic brain injuries typically are caused by a blow or jolt to the head that results from a roadside bomb or other explosive. Victims usually experience double or blurry vision, fatigue, reduced concentration, memory loss, irritability, balance coordination problems and ringing in the ears.

Alaska has the dubious distinction of having more TBI cases than any other state – likely due to its extreme sports culture, Osterbauer said – but servicemembers’ injuries often are more serious than those civilians face due to the percussive wave of blasts. “It’s like a second hit,” he said. “It’s not a single injury, but it’s magnified.”

Osterbauer said he’s amazed at the progress many patients show when treated quickly. About 70 percent of patients with mild cases are back to normal within three to six months. Within a year, he said, about 80 percent return to normal.

But about 15 percent of those with TBI won’t return to normal functioning.

“That doesn’t mean they won’t recover some, but they won’t get back 100 percent of what they were,” Osterbauer said. “My goal is to make sure we give them every opportunity we can to get back to normal, or as normal as they can be.”

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