War on the Brain: Understanding TBIs

The ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq mean that thousands of Americans will spend their lives with war on the brain. Literally.

"Recovery," said neurosurgeon Rocco Armonda, "plateaus to a degree, meaning it levels out, but it actually continues for years. We see recovery in patients from the Vietnam era almost 15 years out in some instances."

Armonda is an Army colonel who has operated on hundreds of traumatic brain injury, TBI, patients at the Bethesda National Naval Medical Center in Maryland, including ABC's Bob Woodruff, who was severely injured in a blast from an improvised explosive device, IED, nearly 18 months ago.

"Our brain is used to being in a closed cookie jar," Armonda said. "When the cookie jar is opened, our brain doesn't function as well because atmospheric pressure presses on the brain."

"[The brain] is used to being in a fluid-supported medium that's enclosed," the neurosurgeon explained further as he lifted away a section of a plastic reproduction of a human skull. "When we take that away, the brain starts becoming compressed. You have impairment in speech and in motor movement."

'I'm Not as Smart as I Used to Be'

In February, in a documentary called "To Iraq and Back," Woodruff chronicled his own recovery along with the struggle of Army Sgt. Michael Boothby and Marines Lance Cpl. Jeff Landay and Sgt. Shurvon Phillip, among others.

Six months ago, Boothby could barely walk and had difficulty even moving the fingers of his left hand.

Today, he said, "it's a lot better. I can do everything with my left hand that I couldn't before." And he can not only walk, he can run.

Six months ago, Landay could barely speak. Now, though he sometimes struggles to find once familiar words and is no longer fluent in Spanish, he speaks with ease.

"I'm not as smart as I used to be," he explained, "but I don't think in an accident like that, it won't be 100 percent again. I'm not going to be the same, but I'll get there."

Landay's and Boothby's recoveries have been achieved through their own hard work and through the selfless determination of their families.

Landay's mother, Michelle, and Boothby's wife, Megan, have sacrificed their jobs and homes to stay by their loved ones' sides — and fought a cumbersome bureaucracy to assure that they got critical therapy after they left the hospital.

"Part of the TBI experience," explained Michelle Landay, "is getting not just the right kind of therapy, but the right therapists as well."

'Battling' for Treatment and Therapy

Michelle insisted on getting her son in treatment at the Balboa Naval Hospital near their El Dorado Hills, Calif. home, but it took six months, and the delay "did slow down his rehabilitation," she said.

"You know, if I hadn't kept battling, we'd probably still be at home waiting. We'd probably still be at home waiting for the service, because there was nobody in our hometown area that was able to give him the services he needed."

When Boothby returned to his Comfort, Texas, home, his condition actually deteriorated as he waited for Dallas Veterans Administration officials to get him into a rehab program. While paperwork delayed the process, his brain collected fluid and he could no longer move his left arm.

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