Thriving after TBI: injured Corporal gives back to fellow soldiers

BY: MERI PERRA

It’s possible the expression, keep soldiering on was created for people just like Corporal David Macdonald. In recent years, Macdonald has climbed the Himalayas, run two half-marathons and he just completed his first full marathon. He continues to serve in the Canadian Forces as a reservist, while working as the national partnerships director at Wounded Warriors Canada.

It’s not a bad list of accomplishments, considering that just six years ago, Macdonald spent three weeks in a coma at the U.S. military hospital in Germany, with no fewer than 47 broken bones in his body.

DAVID MACDONALD
CORPORAL MACDONALD WHILE ON LEAVE FROM THE ARMY THIS SUMMER

“I was involved in a vehicle roll-over on a combat patrol near the end of my tour. I broke my pelvis, I dislocated my left leg, and that had to be surgically put back in,” Macdonald said. “And I had a traumatic brain injury.”

Beyond his injuries, Macdonald says that waking up in Germany, alone, having left his platoon behind, was worse than any injury he suffered.

“[You spend] two years, training, living together, we bonded,” Macdonald said. “To find out that they were still in Afghanistan and I was halfway around the world was just devastating to hear. I wanted to be back with my platoon mates.”

information: brain injuries which are the result of blast are different than other brain injuries

Today, Macdonald, like many injured members of the Canadian Forces, is living with effects of PTSD as well as his traumatic brain injury. He has no memory of the incident which changed his life forever. And while he is learning to accept the reality that some memories have disappeared (he says there are moments from his high school days which are gone forever), the fact that he can not remember this specific, significant moment in his life has been particularly hard to accept.

“My last memory in Afghanistan was orders the morning before the patrol,” Macdonald said.

We hear stories about the challenges members of the Canadian Forces who are living with PTSD and brain injury face. There are the facts: roughly six per cent of the Canadian military personnel deployed in Afghanistan have acquired brain injuries as a result of their service. In the U.S., this number skyrockets to 22 per cent of all military injuries. If you’re in the military, having a brain injury increases your chances of also having PTSD.

Most brain injuries acquired during military service are the result of blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Motor vehicle crashes, such as Macdonald’s, and gun shot wounds, are the other leading causes of brain injury. Brain injuries, which are the result of blasts, have different symptoms than other types of traumatic brain injuries. Typically, post-concussion symptoms for military personnel last longer than civilian concussion symptoms, and members of the military are more likely to have concurrent symptoms such as PTSD and / or addiction issues, along with their TBI.

Macdonald knows the facts. Many of the initiatives and partnerships Wounded Warriors Canada supports are about helping members of the Canadian Forces, and their families, deal with PTSD. In his current position, Macdonald handles third party partnerships, events and fundraising for partner charities.

“Last year, we gave out $1.36 million in funding to these programs and it’s just growing from there,” Macdonald said.

Programs Wounded Warriors supports include a nine day equine assisted learning program for soldiers and their spouses living with PTSD, a fly fishing program and the donation of funds to support service dogs for military members.

“Your odds of developing a form of PTSD almost double for veterans, ” Macdonald said. “There is a certain stigma, because [some] people don’t understand you can recover from it, you can go on and live a normal healthy life. It’s not incapacitation by any means.”

David Macdonald
CORPORAL MACDONALD IN THE HIMALAYAS

Over time, Macdonald has come to accept his new reality. But immediately after he recovered from his injuries, he said he needed to prove to others, and to himself, that he could still be in the military. And while he was physically fit for duty, Macdonald said he continued to suffer physical and mental pain, “stereotypical” things, he says, people dealing with trauma experience. His marriage fell apart and he pulled away from his family and friends. He contemplated, and attempted, suicide.

“I was going through things like depression and I had a lot of anxiety issues, [but] I wasn’t recognizing them.”

Then a communication came through his unit. A documentary project, March to the Top, was looking for recovering soldiers to go on a climb through the Himalayas. Macdonald, who at the time was the only soldier in his unit who was wounded, was initially a bit sceptical of the project, which was described to him as a ‘good go’.

“Half the time a ‘good go’ means that … you get to do an amazing cause and you get to meet people,” Macdonald said. “Or it can mean that you’re shovelling dirt in Northern Alberta for six months.”

It turns out, March to the Top was a legit ‘good go’ and the experience changed, and possibly even saved, Macdonald’s life. Accomplishing the feat of trekking in the Himalayas made Macdonald realize that he needed help. He learned that what he was feeling was normal, and diagnosable. It was PTSD.

CORPORAL MACDONALD WITH AN AFGHAN NATIONAL
CORPORAL MACDONALD WITH AN AFGHAN NATIONAL

“It allowed me to open up and come forward in the military and say, ‘hey I have issues, I need help.’ And that’s what started the process for me getting the help I needed,” Macdonald said.

Macdonald’s attitude is one that accepts the realities of his injuries while allowing himself to thrive. He talks about post-traumatic growth, and feeling stronger as a result of experiencing  injuries and trauma. It’s important to him that he is able to help his fellow veterans through his job, a duty he takes seriously. Until he accepted a paid position with Wounded Warriors this past February, Macdonald juggled volunteering as the provincial coordinator for Ontario while working full-time at a bank, and doing his reserve duties. The man keeps busy.

March to the Top team
THE MARCH TO THE TOP TEAM; PHOTO: CBC

“I  don’t necessarily see my PTSD as a weakness anymore,” Macdonald said. “I used to see it more as part of my life, now I can be stronger because of it.”

Macdonald says he doesn’t know the “future” of his brain injury.  He says it can rear its ugly head at any time, and some days are harder than others.

“Something they ingrain you with in the military is never give up,” Macdonald said. “This is not a limitation, this is something that is now a part of you, but you can still excel, and you can still do amazing things.”


Meri Perra is the communications and support coordinator at BIST.

 

 

 

 

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Canadian veterans: dealing with ABI and PTSD

BY: RICHARD HASKELL

Travelling to a foreign country to engage in combat. Witnessing injuries, death and destruction on a regular basis. Forced to endure tough living conditions. Is it any wonder members of the Canadian armed forces who see action return home not only with physical, but with mental and emotional trauma as well?

Broken bones and musculoskeletal injuries can be healed. More challenging however, are the emotional afflictions men and women in the armed services can suffer, and surely among the most devastating is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Soldier in combat
photo credit: C. Maxwell Horn via photopin cc

PTSD has been much in the news over the last few years, which could give the mistaken impression that it is a new condition.

In fact, PTSD has been around for a very long time, but under different names. Among these were “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.” I remember my mother telling me about a great-uncle of a friend of hers, explaining that he had seen action in WWII and was ‘never the same again’. “He was shell-shocked and couldn’t do much after the war was over,” she used to tell me, shaking her head. While the name has become more clinical, the symptoms remain the same., PTSD is defined as:

A debilitating psychological condition triggered by a major traumatic event, such as rape, war, a terrorist act, death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a catastrophic accident. It is marked by upsetting memories or thoughts of the ordeal,”blunting” of emotions,increased arousal, and sometimes severe personality changes”.

2 army women doing deep breathing exercises
photo credit: MilitaryHealth via photopin cc

Symptoms

Most people have been involved in a frightening situation at some point in their lives, and reactions vary from person to person. Some might feel nervous at times, while others might have a difficult time sleeping as they go over the details of the incident in their minds. Over time, symptoms usually decrease, and sufferers affected eventually return to their normal lives.

However, in the case of PTSD, the effects last a considerably longer time and can seriously disrupt a person’s life.

Doctors refer to three symptoms that define PTSD: intrusion, avoidance and hyperarousal. Intrusion is the inability to keep memories of the event that sparked it from returning. Avoidance refers to the attempt to avoid anything that may trigger those memories, and hyperarousal is the constant feeling that danger or disaster is imminent. These may also be accompanied by an inability to concentrate, extreme irritability or sometimes violent behaviour.

Those affected can experience recurring nightmares, flashbacks or recollections of the event or incident. They can feel “on edge” all the time, have difficulty in concentrating, be irritable and have problems sleeping . A common symptom among veterans is something known as nocturnal myoclonus, a sudden spasm of the whole body while sleeping or drifting off into sleep. It lasts for about a fraction of a second, but may occur several times in a single night. Often people with PTSD will sleep through such a spasm, but it can be extremely disturbing to their partner.

People suffering from PTSD may also feel disconnected from their thoughts and have a hard time expressing emotions. It can lead to depression, substance abuse and create problems in a person’s personal life. Suicide is often seen as the only way out.

Not surprisingly, those in certain occupations, such as policing, firefighting and the military have much higher rates of PTSD than those in other professions. And in some cases, trauma such as warfare can cause symptoms even beyond those commonly associated with PTSD, resulting in a state known as “complex PTSD.”

members of the military doing yoga
photo credit: MilitaryHealth via photopin cc

Brain Injury and PTSD

A study released by the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, in February 2012, reported of a possible correlation between acquired brain injuries and PTSD, suggesting that people who suffer even a mild brain injury are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder.

UCLA professor of psychology Michael Fanselow found that this relationship was particularly prevalent among veterans who had returned from overseas. The reasons for the connection are not yet fully clear. Nevertheless, in an experiment with rats, scientists used procedures to separate physical and emotional trauma, training the rats by using “fear conditioning” techniques two days after they had experienced a concussive brain trauma, thereby demonstrating that the brain injury and the experience of fear had occurred on two separate days. As Dr. Fanselow explained:

We found that the rats with the earlier TBI acquired more fear than control rats (without TBI). Something about the brain injury rendered them more susceptible to acquiring an inappropriately strong fear. It was as if the injury primed the brain for learning to be afraid.

Canadian Armed Forces in front of the Parliament Buildings
photo credit: Jamie In Bytown via photopin cc

Standard Treatments

According to Boston’s Mayo Clinic, the primary treatment of PTSD is psychotherapy but this is also frequently combined with medication. Psychotherapy can include any of the following types:

  • Cognitive therapy. This type helps patients recognize the ways of thinking (cognitive patterns) that are hindering the healing process.
  • Exposure therapy. This type helps patients safely face what is causing them such distress so they are able to cope with it more effectively.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that helps patients react better to traumatic memories.

New Treatment

The Canadian military has come under criticism for its seeming neglect in both the recognition and treatment of PTSD ex-soldiers are still feeling the effects of combat. Last November, three veterans took their own lives over the course of a week, bringing the total to more than 22 since the mission in Afghanistan ended.

Nevertheless, a story from CTV News in March of 2014 reported a new treatment being tested that so far, is producing positive results. Developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, it involves the notion of virtual reality in which a sufferer affixes a device to his or her head which simulates the circumstances that brought about the trauma in the first place. The therapist can then talk the patient through the ordeal, thus helping them to overcome it.

The federal government is now in discussion with ICT in order to develop a Canadian version.  The ultimate goal is not just to treat afflictions such as PTSD but to also train soldiers before going into battle, helping them to experience the sense of combat before they embark on the real thing.

PTSD can be both debilitating and life-threatening, but there is hope. If you know someone you suspect is suffering from PTSD urge them to seek help.

Those afflicted may find it difficult, for stigmas surrounding mental health issues continue to persist. Yet seeking help is the first step to recovery and it is readily available through such organizations as Canadian Mental Health. Suicide is most definitely not the solution. Those who have served in the Canadian armed forces have served their country well, and deserve whatever we can give them to continue leading happy and successful lives.

PTSD AWARENESS

Resources

If you think you or someone you know has PTSD or needs other mental health supports:

‘Blast lab’ could help researchers learn more about war-related brain trauma

The stats are nothing short of staggering:  23 per cent of deployed Canadian soldiers live with the effects of brain injury. In the U.S., limited research suggests that 10 to 20 per cent of combat troops experienced brain injury during their deployment.

Despite this, there is no sure-fire diagnostic test to determine whether a soldier has suffered a brain injury in the battlefield. Persistent concussion symptoms, which some scientists believe are the result of blasts from improvised explosive devices, remain a medically disputed area.

Ibolja Cernak, professor and chair in military and veterans’ clinical rehabilitation at the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta, says much more research needs to take place.

“We are still quite far from understanding how [war-related brain] injury happens,” she told the Edmonton Sun.

soldier with gun on dirt road
photo credit: isafmedia via photopin cc

Which is why the University of Alberta is opening a Centre for Traumatic Brain Injury and Military Research, thanks to a $481,000 donation from the Alberta and Northwest Territories branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

“What we hope to learn is exactly which mechanisms are involved, when they start to be activated,” Cernak told the Edmonton Journal. “Can we actually pre-train soldiers to be more resilient to those injury mechanisms? And finally, can we find and develop a material which would provide better protection?”

The causes of war-related brain injury are disputed. Research published in 2008 by Veterans Affairs Canada refers to the “unproven concern” that “pure blast energy from ambush weapons” can lead to brain injury. Yet, the Edmonton Journal states:

…  repetitive low-intensive blasts trigger the release of hormones and oscillate blood pressure, which can damage multiple organs. In the brain, a slow cascade can move through neural pathways on the molecular level, leading to premature aging, degeneration and effects similar to Alzheimer’s disease.

In 1995, Cernak, who had started working as a first responder in the Kosovo conflict, began to collect blood samples from the soldiers she was treating. Using other, non-injured soldiers as a control group, she was looking for biological markers which could indicate recovery.

Cernak said she was shocked to find that one year post-injury, injured soldiers continued to report memory, motor, balance and speech problems. Even now, despite 28-years of neuropathology under her belt, Cernak says she can’t cure these symptoms.

photo credit: TORCH MAGAZINE via photopin cc
photo credit: TORCH MAGAZINE via photopin cc

The Centre’s facilities will include a nine-meter long “shock tube” which will stimulate the explosive sounds and kinetic energy that come from improvised explosive devices soldiers encounter in the battlefield. Using rodents, scientists will examine what happens to the body and brain when exposed to these conditions.

Researchers say they hope the lab will also benefit those who have suffered a brain injury as the result of a motor vehicle accident or sports injury.

Ibolja Cernak via Ibolja Cernak Linked In
Ibolja Cernak via Ibolja Cernak Linked In

“It’s so important to have a relatively complex and demanding laboratory setting because that speeds up the transfer of knowledge that can potentially benefit so many,” Cernak told the Edmonton Sun. “We are not doing science for science’s sake. We are doing science for soldiers’ sake.”

Sources: Edmonton Journal + Edmonton Sun + npr.orgUniversity of Alberta

Lest we forget: what to do on Remembrance Day in Toronto

Soldiers in uniform with poppies
photo credit: Shreyans Bhansali via photopin cc

The recent, tragic deaths of Canadian soldiers Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant officer Patrice Vincent, both killed on Canadian soil, are stark reminders of the sacrifices, risks and contributions our military men and women make every day.

To recognize our military personnel and veterans, Brain Injury Blog TORONTO will focus on veterans and brain injury this month, starting with this guide on Remembrance Day events in Toronto. Military men and women do a lot for us. Let’s honour them and give a little back.

Saturday, Nov. 8

A Concert of Remembrance – Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation – 7:30 p.m.
Yorkminister Park Baptist Church, 1585 Yonge St. (2 blocks north of St. Clair Ave.)

Queen’s Own Rifles Day – Casaloma – 10 a..m. – 5 p.m.
1 Austin Terrace (Spadina Ave. and Davenport Rd.)
Casaloma will pay tribute to Remembrance Day with WWI and WWII re-enactments, displays and military exercises by the Queen’s Own Rifles. FREE admission to active and retired military with valid military ID, otherwise tickets are $14 for kids, $24 for adults.

Poppies on a war memorial
photo credit: Pandora’s Perspective via photopin cc

Sunday, Nov. 9

Soldiers of WWI – Remembrance and Coffee Hour Display – 10:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. 
28 Fairlawn Avenue (Yonge, North of Lawrence)
This Sunday, the church’s service will focus on the men and women of WWI, followed by a coffee hour with a photo display of military personnel from the period.

 Memorial Service at the Mount Dennis Royal Canadian Legion – 2 – 3:15 p.m.
1050 Weston Road (South of Eglinton)

Tuesday, Nov. 11 – REMEMBRANCE DAY 

Legislative Buildings, Queens Park – 10:45 a.m.
The Province of Ontario hosts a Remembrance Day service each year in front of the Ontario Veterans’ Memorial, which remembers the sacrifices of every man and woman in the province who served in the military during times of war and peace.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne at Remembrance Day service
photo credit: Premier of Ontario Photography via photopin cc

City of Toronto events

The City of Toronto runs Remembrance Day events at its civic centres in East YorkEtobicoke, North York and Scarborough. 

You can also find city-run events at:

Fort York, – Strachan Military Cemetery on Garrison Common – 10:45 a.m.
Public gathers at: Strachan Avenue Military cemetery (Front St. and Garrison St.)
Starting at the west gates of Fort York, period uniformed military staff and standards bearers of the Imperial Daughters of the Empire (IODE) Toronto Municipal Chapter will lead a procession which will end at the Strachan Avenue Military Cemetry at 11 a.m. Fort York’s service will remember all Toronto soldiers who have fallen since the war of 1812.

Toronto City Hall – Cenotaph – 11 .a.m.
60 Queen St. East (at Bay St.)

Kew Gardens – Cenotaph – 11 a.m.
2075 Queen St. East (at Lee St.)

Online Resources:

Fairlawn United Church has an online display of men and women of WWI from their church’s community here. They also challenge anyone who has pictures of people of WWI to find out more about that person. (Don’t be intimidated, they also provide useful links on how to do the research.)

Veterans Affairs Canada has a timeline of Canada’s roles in war and peacekeeping missions since WWI. The site also allows you to send an e-card for peace to known email addresses, and has a social media Remembrance Day guide. They are encouraging 11 minutes of social media silence on Nov. 11 at 11:01 a.m. 

Sources: City of TorontoVeterans Affairs