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State bill would provide free treatment to vets with traumatic brain injury

When Capt. Matt Smothermon came home from a deployment to Afghanistan with the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, he wasn’t the same person.

He suffered debilitating headaches and couldn’t think properly. He had a hard time focusing, he said, and social situations became difficult to handle.

“Things got bad,” he said.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Smothermon credited a relatively new type of treatment for giving him his life back. State lawmakers are seeking to make that treatment available at no cost to other veterans with traumatic brain injury.

While in Afghanistan, Smothermon was a platoon leader on a route clearance team, searching for roadside bombs. After surviving three separate bomb blasts, he was hospitalized and diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.

When he returned home, Smothermon noticed the lasting effects the injury had on his cognitive and social skills. He’d been in law school when he deployed, but didn’t see a way he could finish.

He decided to undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy through the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences. He noticed a difference almost immediately, he said. He began to regain his cognitive and social skills.

After 40 rounds of the treatment, he was back in law school. After 80 rounds, he took over as commander of his unit, leading the company in the Oklahoma National Guard’s response to the Moore tornado.

A bill in the Oklahoma Legislature would make the same treatment available for free to any Oklahoma veteran who has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and has received a prescription for the treatment.

Senate Bill 1604 passed unanimously out of the Senate on March 10. It now heads to the House for consideration.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy places the patient in a chamber in which air pressure is raised several times higher than normal, allowing the lungs to gather more oxygen from the air. Proponents of the treatment say the increased oxygen levels allow the body to recover from injury more quickly.

The bill would allow veterans to receive the treatment at any licensed and equipped medical facility in the state. The bill would also create the Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury Treatment and Recovery Revolving Fund, which would pay for the treatment.

The bill is similar to a piece of legislation that failed last year. Lawmakers called the previous version into question, saying the science was unproven. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the therapy for treatment of brain injury.

But an Israeli study published in November shows the treatment can help improve brain function in traumatic brain injury patients. With more evidence backing the treatment, Sen. Mark Allen, R-Spiro, said he’s more optimistic about the current version.

Allen, one of the bill’s authors, said the program would be funded through private donations, meaning it could be implemented with no financial impact to the state.

Retired Air National Guard Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, the state secretary of military and veteran affairs, said she hopes the program would help raise public awareness of veterans issues. Helping veterans with traumatic brain injury with recovery could prevent a range of other issues, including substance abuse and incarceration, she said.

“We have a huge investment in the military in Oklahoma,” she said. “We have a huge debt to those who served.”

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