Returning Tenn. veterans get help for seizures
Chattanooga Times/Free Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — It's easy to forget it happened. A punch during hand-to-hand combat. A chip of rock after a mortar round. A tap on the head during a bumpy ride in the humvee. But the soldier's brain doesn't forget.
When the brain bleeds, just a little, brain cells can die and the wiring becomes faulty. Later, spastic signals are sent with nowhere to go.
The seizures, big or small, often don't come until the soldier's uniforms are packed away. It could be months, five years or 15 years later.
And until fairly recently, no one knew that some of the symptoms they thought veterans were experiencing because of post traumatic stress disorder actually were the result of a hit or series of hits to the head and a resulting seizure disorder.
"Even if there is a blast that happens, the head may not even hit an object; the shock waves can cause trauma," said Lisa Morgan, service coordinator for the Chattanooga Area Brain Injury Association. "A lot of people may not know they have had a traumatic brain injury."
More than 1.6 million American soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 320,000 are expected to experience a traumatic brain injury. It's the most common injury to return home with, according to the national Epilepsy Foundation.
Between 48,000 and 169,000 of those injured are expected to develop post-traumatic epilepsy and, with so many veterans coming home to Tennessee, agencies are gearing up to help with the complications that come with seizure disorders.
Those who work with veterans and people with epilepsy are trying to create a safety net for former soldiers in Southeast Tennessee. The Epilepsy Foundation of Southeast Tennessee, the Chattanooga Area Brain Injury Association and the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Coalition are educating veterans who have had brain injuries, telling them and their spouses that they are at risk of seizures or already could be having them.
They hope to draw those veterans into support groups to assure spouses and their children that seizures, often terrifying for those who experience them and their families, can be managed in 40 percent of the cases with the right medication, said Mickey McCamish, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Southeast Tennessee.
"There is no cure," he said. "There is a misfiring in the brain that creates chaotic activity where the brain seizes up."
In seizures that affect the whole brain, people can black out for five minutes or blink their eyes incessantly or smack their lips, he said.
Microseizures aren't large events. People don't fall on the floor, unconscious and convulsing. But there are signs. It's like a pause button gets pushed. A person may stare into the distance or have trouble controlling their impulses. They feel angry, frustrated, discombobulated or easily bothered.
It can cause violent outbursts and disrupt marriages and kids, said Butch Varner, a psychology professor at Miller-Motte Technical College who has worked with many epileptic veterans.
"You are walking along and all the sudden you forget something. You wonder where you are. Feel like you are somewhere else for a minute. Someone is asking a question, and you can't pay attention," said Varner. "A lot of soldiers, they come home agitated and they don't realize why."
And it can be hard for counselors to know what is caused by PTSD, adjustment disorder or seizures. Often a seizure medication is needed along with talk therapy, he said.
For those who are waiting to qualify for medication through the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Epilepsy Foundation has set aside money to cover the cost of medications.
"These people need to be treated," Varner said. "I had a client like that. It was an issue of microseizures that got treated, and it changed everything. It changed behavior problems."