I usually write about politics, economics, foreign relations and national security, law and the Constitution, and, occasionally, American history and culture. Today I am going to write about our armed services, professional sports and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). For the past month I have been immersed in understanding how TBI can be treated.
Last week, San Francisco 49ers rookie linebacker Chris Borland quit the National Football League. He walked away from a career that promised millions in salary, bonuses and endorsements, crediting fear of injuring his brain in the course of bruising play for that all but unprecedented trip to the showers.
With suicides of several of its retirees – most notably Junior Seau in 2012 — attributed to TBI, the NFL has been under siege on concussion-related issues for some time now. Thousands of former players and their families have filed lawsuits. The league has established a three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollars restitution fund. More than 18,000 veterans of the game may be eligible for benefits. It has announced nearly $50 million in grants for brain research to the National Institutes of Health Foundation and other institutions.
The NFL is not alone. The NHL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NCAA, NASCAR, even Little League baseball have all taken media heat or faced litigation over brain injuries sustained in their contests. National Geographic reflected a broad consensus in the media and popular culture about TBI when it reported in early March, “not only is there no secure means of diagnosis, but there [is]… no cure.”
This is where the military comes in.
For in fact TBI is being diagnosed and successfully treated today in a series of special centers that a private foundation – the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (IFHF) — has been quietly building on military bases around the country. Thanks to science developed at a companion research facility the foundation constructed on the campus of Walter Reed Medical Center near Washington, these centers provide a level of clinical treatment that is an estimated 7-8 years ahead of that available anywhere else in the world. As the head physician of one of them told me recently, “As determined by a battery of standardized neuro-cognitive tests that certify a soldier prepared to return to active duty… our success rate in TBI treatment is running at 92 percent.”
The relationship between the IFHF and the armed services is rare, perhaps unique. Using only privately raised funds (no government money at all), the foundation built Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) and five current or under construction clinically oriented Intrepid Spirit Centers. It turned the completed centers over to the military for operation.
To design the facilities, it teamed military and civilian doctors with its architects and engineers. The results have all but compelled the kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration at these completed centers that is producing the breakthroughs in TBI treatment reflected in the stunning outcome data. These advances are comparable to the US military’s success against infection in World War II, when the introduction of penicillin all but ended infection as a killer of our forces.
A phalanx of expert clinicians greets the soldier, sailor, Marine or SEAL who enters an Intrepid Spirit Center. The care that they provide combines advanced diagnostics and cutting edge rehabilitation techniques with non-traditional approaches such as acupuncture and yoga.
Every aspect of treatment – whether high tech brain scanning or art therapy – is built around an understanding to the brain that was beyond medical imagination until very recently. The doctors and staff see the brain not as a static organ that once injured cannot be fixed. Rather, they demonstrate daily that the brain has enormous self-healing capacities, if treatment is properly designed and tightly targeted.
The results can be measured in lives restored, marriages and families saved – and not just for service members ready to return to their assignments. The researchers and physicians at both NICoE and the Intrepid Spirit Centers are sharing their findings with civilian medical centers in their regions and further afield and, through publications, with the global medical community. Young athletes, car-crash victims and so many of the rest of us benefit. The discoveries may also be opening pathways for addressing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS and other seemingly intractable brain-related conditions. Some of the Intrepid facilities doctors have advised NFL teams, too.
IFHF has just launched a $50 million fund raising campaign to build its last four Intrepid Spirit Centers. These will be at Camp Pendleton, California (Marines); the Joint Base (Army and Air Force) Lewis-McChord near Tacoma; and Fort Carson in Colorado Springs and Fort Bliss around El Paso (both Army).
I have enlisted in that campaign. Wouldn’t it be great if the NFL and other professional sports were to do so, too? Great for the players, the teams, and the fans. Great for our men and women in uniform. Great for all of us. Every American would salute.