My friend Don served 19 years active duty in the Marine Corps before he was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan in 2003. He was flown by medivac back to the States, where his family was told that his brain injury was so severe he would never again be able to function on his own. He couldn’t feed himself, go to the bathroom by himself, read, write or talk. But within two years, he had proved the doctors wrong.
By the time I met Don, it was hard to tell, except for short pauses in his speech and some unsuccessful attempts at multitasking, that his brain wasn’t in tip-top shape. He drives, he reads to kids, he volunteers in disaster areas, he is articulate and well-read, and I can always count on him for a thought-provoking conversation.
Last month, he picked me up, and we drove to Bethesda Naval Medical Center, where we took a hard-hat tour of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), a privately funded facility that will focus exclusively on traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological health issues.
Don told me that in 2003, his was one of the first brain injury cases military doctors faced. “There was no protocol for it,” he said. “They didn’t know what to do with me.” That’s far from the case today. Sadly, there are so many returning soldiers suffering from TBI and PTSD, many of the cases undiagnosed, that it’s become a priority in military medicine.
NICoE, being built next to the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, is funded by the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, the sister organization of the Fisher House Foundation. The 72,000-square-foot building, an outpatient center, will focus on research, diagnosis and treatment for military personnel. It will house about $25 million of high-tech medical equipment such as the CAREN (Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment) system and a MEG scanner, which measures the magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the brain and looks like a walk-in refrigerator.
The facility will also include an occupational therapy gym, gait lab, vocational rehabilitation space, vehicle simulator, speech, hearing and sight rehabilitation labs and a virtual reality room. After a patient is admitted to the center, following a referral from his or her primary care physician, he or she will go through different tests and labs, looking inside the brain and testing physical abilities. The facility also houses enough data storage space to keep all soldiers’ electronic records on site for 50 years.
Walking through the construction site, it was clear that this won’t be your average military medical facility. There is a giant glass wall and a huge circular skylight on the second floor. There is plenty of natural light, and I can imagine when it’s complete it will feel welcoming, nothing like hospitals or labs I’ve visited before—military or civilian.
“The focus is on the totality of patient,” said our tour guide, David Wysong, project manager for Turner Construction Co., the general contractor. “This facility will deal with all parts of soldier’s life, including family. The goal is to have it be comfortable for everyone walking in the door, and not to feel like a hospital.”
Wysong said the project is on schedule and on budget, expected to open in June. He said it is coming together in half the time it would have taken for a similar government-funded building. Turner and many of the subcontractors have donated time, money or supplies to the project (or priced their work below their commercial rate) and although the budget is $70 million, it would have been significantly more without the donations. Wysong said it’s a personal project for many of the workers.
“When you’ve got a great cause, it’s a lot easier to say, ‘I’d like you to take a little off, or take a little less commission,’” Wysong told me. Out of 30 subcontractors, he said everyone gave a little. “But when they walk away from it, they’ll be able to say they were part of something.”
As Don and I followed Wysong around the site, the two of them thanked each other several times. Wysong kept thanking Don for his service and his sacrifice. And Don thanked Wysong, saying it was rare that he had the opportunity to thank people who are behind the scenes, making facilities and programs like NICoE a reality.
On one hand, this center can’t open fast enough—there is so much need among service members. But on the other hand, what a long way we’ve come from the time Don came home. As we left the center, I could only imagine what was going on in his brain.