COMBAT INJURY

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Alan Burghard is pictured here after surgery for a brain injury he sustained when an explosive device hit the convoy in which he was traveling while on duty in Iraq.

 

BULLHEAD CITY — There is a movement under way to treat returning military veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) with Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) instead of drugs.

“We’re losing a soldier an hour to suicide,” said Janet Franco, who hosts a Las Vegas-based radio program dedicated to helping veterans with those afflictions.

“What’s happening when they get back (from active duty) is the high amounts of pharmaceutical drugs that are administered to our soldiers. The side effects are causing more damage than good when it comes to depression and suicidal thoughts,” Franco said.

She had a son with a head injury “and he tried two or three times to kill himself over the years, so I’m very familiar with what these families go through,” she said.

“To say that we are in a state of emergency is an understatement,” Franco said.

The Mayo Clinic website, mayoclinic.org, describes the process known as HBOT: “Your body’s tissues need an adequate supply of oxygen to function. When tissue is injured, it requires even more oxygen to survive. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy increases the amount of oxygen your blood can carry. An increase in blood oxygen temporarily restores normal levels of blood gases and tissue function to promote healing and fight infection.

“In a hyperbaric oxygen therapy room, the air pressure is raised up to three times higher than normal air pressure. Under these conditions, your lungs can gather up to three times more oxygen than would be possible breathing pure oxygen at normal air pressure.

“Your blood carries this oxygen throughout your body, stimulating the release of substances called growth factors and stem cells, which promote healing.”

“And so the brain gets a chance to heal and re-establish some of those processes,” said Scott Leckie, Valley View Medical Center hyperbaric/wound care program director. “The brain is a big consumer of oxygen.” 

Both VVMC and Western Arizona Regional Medical Center offer HBOT for a range of afflictions. The treatment for TBI and

 PTSI is still considered to be experimental and insurance does not yet cover it.

“There is some promising research ... especially for the acute phases of those type of diseases,” said Mark Noe, certified hyperbaric technician and registered respiratory therapist at WARMC. Noe said he would be willing to participate in a study if the opportunity presented itself.

“The preliminary results have been very positive, but as you know, in the medicine world, you’ve got to have the scientific studies, not just anecdotal, and so that’s the thing that has to happen next is strong, rigorous clinical studies that prove the results,” Leckie said.

By popular demand, elected officials are getting involved. Commissioners in several Texas counties have been passing resolutions urging the state to provide adequate funding for HBOT for returning veterans. 

Marine Corps Lt. Col. (ret.) Alan Burghard, Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient and a technical advisor for the CBS television program “NCIS: Los Angeles”, attributes his TBI cure to HBOT.

In Iraq in 2004, the convoy in which Burghard was traveling was hit by insurgents who detonated an artillery shell. He wasn’t hit by shrapnel but “the shock wave kind of banged me up against the door” and he was knocked out.

It sheared a circular canal, part of the vestibular system of the brain, giving Burghard migraine headaches. “That still took a couple years to diagnose,” he said.

“Brain injuries and (PTSI) are kind of the signature wounds of the Iraq War. There’s just tons of them,” Burghard said. “Two MRIs and a CT scan later ... they finally figured out what it was.” 

He had brain surgery, followed by a regimen of pharmaceuticals, including anti-seizure medicine. Drugs Burghard was taking were on a list of pharmaceuticals that could make younger men more prone to suicide, he said. Other side effects included weight gain and disorientation. 

He found the medication affected his cognitive abilities and his IQ had dropped 20 points. “Everything was harder and slower,” Burghard said. He medically retired in 2007, and joined NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) as a senior special agent. He found the job difficult to handle and retired in 2009. 

Burghard’s former commanding officer in Iraq, Michael Walker, helped Burghard connect with Martin Hoffman, army secretary in the Gerald Ford administration. Hoffman was one of the people spearheading the movement to treat TBI and PTSI with HBOT. Hoffman referred Burghard to Dr. Paul Harch at Louisiana State University. 

“I filled out a ream of paperwork to be a ‘human test subject,’” Burghard said. In early 2010, he spent six weeks in New Orleans receiving treatment at no cost to him. Therapy lasted an hour at a time, with two sessions per day, 40 hours total. Burghard stayed on his medicine during treatment and “ended it my last day.”

As the result of the HBOT, Burghard’s sleep and cognitive abilities improved and he gained back his 20 IQ points.

He said, “I’m largely healed,” and is at “the 85 percent mark.”

He needs to complete a second phase but there is no funding available, Burghard said. HBOT for veterans would save the federal government money, since it would no longer need to pay for pharmaceuticals for the rest of their lives, he said.

For more information regarding hyperbaric oxygen treatment, go to www.hbot.com.

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