Brain Injuries Overlooked at Some Veterans Hospitals

Bob Woodruff has visited with many soldiers and marines over the past several months, who complain that the Veterans Administration is not equipped to care for brain injured vets once they leave the specialized rehabilitation centers and return home to their local VA hospitals.

As part of the documentary "To Iraq and Back," Woodruff questioned Jim Nicholson, who runs the Veterans Administration and serves 5.5 million veterans, as to whether the smaller VA hospitals can appropriately care for the soldiers returning from the war zone with brain injuries.

"We have organized the VA with this priority for these combatants returning back," said Nicholson.

The VA runs the largest health care system in the nation and had to adapt its services when soldiers began returning with multiple injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005, the Veterans Administration set up four special polytrauma centers to treat these traumatic injuries.

Woodruff visited the polytrauma center in Tampa, Fla., and found that 60 percent of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans they treated had endured a brain injury.

Dr. Steven Scott, who helped establish the polytrauma centers, told Woodruff that in Tampa they are much more experienced at treating brain injured veterans.

"Because we see a lot more here, we have more experience or [are] more attuned to what's going on, you know, with the war itself and those injury patterns," said Scott, the chief of rehabilitation of the Tampa VA.

And Scott said that it is "absolutely" much more difficult for veterans to get the kind of help they need at the smaller VA hospitals.

Patient Arrives, but Hospital Not Prepared

Sgt. Michael Boothby, who was injured by an IED blast in Iraq last September, is one of those soldiers who has had a difficult time transferring his care to his local VA.

Woodruff first met Boothby and his wife, Megan, on a visit to Bethesda Naval Hospital. Woodruff caught up with the couple three weeks later in Tampa, where Boothby was sent for his inpatient rehabilitation.

"I'm doing so good right now," Boothy told Woodruff in Tampa, with his condition improved in part by the three to five hour therapy sessions he was receiving each day.

Boothby was making good progress and planned to move home, so the day before he would leave Tampa, a teleconference was held between the Tampa VA and the center in Texas, to make sure his rehabilitation would transfer smoothly once he returned home to Texas.

"Once you leave the Department of Defense and a place like Walter Reed, or one of the polytrauma units, and you get home to your local VA, they may have never seen a traumatic brain injury," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The specialists aren't going to be there, evaluation methods aren't going to be there, even the paperwork's not going to be there."

That's exactly what happened when Boothby arrived home.

The VA hospital in San Antonio didn't have a program in place to treat brain injury. Boothby had to wait for paperwork to arrive to begin private rehabilitation, and while he waited, his condition deteriorated.

"Well, when we first got here, it was our understanding we were supposed to start with an outpatient program," his wife, Megan, explains, "but … there was nothing. Nothing was set up."

After making progress in Tampa, he again struggled to use his left hand, and the Boothby's believe that many of Michael's problems could have been prevented.

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