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Vets' problems can weigh heavily on families, caregivers

As Kara Gagnon worked to diagnose vision problems associated with traumatic brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans several years ago, she saw another need.

Gagnon, then a optometrist with the Veterans Hospital in West Haven, noticed that some of the patients' caregivers, often young wives, who waited outside of her office "were exhibiting a high level of stress."

She realized the caregivers themselves were often shouldering larger responsibilities and challenges, as they dealt with the effects of brain injuries or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in their loved ones.

"Their names and faces are emblazoned in my brain," she said about the families.

Gagnon, who grew up in Old Saybrook and now resides in Chester, decided she had to help.

She recently founded Peace of Mind Brain Injury Services for BraveMinds, a nonprofit organization, to build a community of support. She plans to open a wellness center in Milford later this month to offer mental and physical health services to veterans and their families. Eventually, Gagnon, an associate clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine, aims to open an eye clinic there too and wellness centers across the country.

Michael Osten of Norwich, a U.S. Army veteran who works full-time as an outside machinist at Electric Boat, met Gagnon 3½ years ago during an eye exam at her clinic. He said she helped guide him to the doctors who could treat the effects of a traumatic brain injury he suffered during his service 26 years ago.

Osten said Gagnon helped him see that he could work through his disabilities to realize his full potential.

"From the moment I met her, I really felt she was a person I could trust and who really cared about me as a person and a veteran," he said.

He said it was also important that she involved his whole family in the medical process.

"She always sat down and explained it to me," said his wife, Maria.

Maria said it was important to realize how an illness, such as traumatic brain injury, can affect all members of the family, including children.

"You need the whole family to heal," said Maria.

Gagnon's journey began nearly 10 years ago, when she pored over medical journals in anticipation of the veterans who would visit her office after returning home.

She realized that they would face a multitude of health issues - from short-term memory problems to post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I was really concerned they would go undiagnosed," she said.

While many brain injuries would not show up on diagnostic scans, she knew they often were associated with vision problems. For example, nearly 80 percent of men and women exposed to a blast will experience light sensitivity.

After repeatedly calling the Pentagon, Gagnon ended up organizing conferences for the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs. The conferences allowed practitioners from a broad range of medical disciplines to pull together screening tools for veterans and write standards of care for their treatment. She won seven national awards for her initiatives, ended up writing policy in Washington, D.C., and stressed detection, as she worked in an in-patient eye clinic, as well as two out-patient clinics she founded.

Seeing the stresses on the families, she realized the need to offer the caregivers mental health services. For example, families experience stress as the injured soldier undergoes personality changes, memory loss or lack of inhibition that can occur after damage to the frontal lobe of the brain.

She said she found there were financial stipends available from the VA for caregivers, but she said she wanted to bridge the gap for mental-health services through a new center.

"I decided I was going to open up a clinic for them, a wellness center to offer mental health services for caregivers and their entire family," she said.

She is building awareness for the center and working with the Mentoring Corps for Community Development, a group of volunteers based in Old Lyme and recently addressed the Lyme-Old Lyme Chamber of Commerce.

Staffed with psychologists and social workers, the clinic will focus on mental-health services, lectures on wellness, activities to build community, and relaxation therapies, such as yoga, she said. In addition to veterans and their families, the clinic will be open to anyone with a brain injury.

Gagnon's nonprofit also hosts telephone focus groups among spouses of military service men and women to determine their needs . She would like to replicate these phone calls, in which the spouses have shared practical advice and support with each other, at support groups at the clinic.

"It's the ability to vent and talk to someone who has a similar lifestyle, but it's also sharing information about the system and how to navigate it to get their loved ones help," she said.

Jeffrey Mittman, a board member of the organization, said a support system is crucial for the injured veteran, but it's also important to develop an understanding between the injured and his or her spouse.

"It will be a stronger bond," he said.

Mittman said he personally knows "the trials and tribulations of traumatic brain injury." He was serving in the Army in 2005, when he was hit by a roadside bomb in Baghdad that knocked him unconscious. He lost his nose and teeth and ended up needing 40 operations.

His wife was by his side as he recovered over several years at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in a Washington, D.C. He saw the toll the stress was taking on her, as well as the difficulty she faced being away from their children. But he said all of the resources were directed toward him, not his wife.

"Where does the spouse go?" he asked. "Where does the caregiver go?"

He said sometimes the spouse just needs someone to talk to for support. He also stressed the importance of a holistic approach toward healing that focuses on the family and children.

Alleviating stress at home can prevent it from leading to further issues, such as alcohol, drug or domestic violence problems, he said. In addition, knowing that the caregiver is being cared for can lessen the burden of guilt often felt by the injured spouse, he said.

Suzie Kim of New Jersey, knows first-hand the responsibilities of being a caretaker, along with a lack of sleep and no time for respite.

Kim, who met Gagnon when her husband was treated for traumatic brain injury at a visual clinic in West Haven, said she welcomes the idea of a wellness center for respite and support.

She wants other caregivers to know they're not alone.

"I am a caretaker myself," she said. "I am looking for you, so we can band together."

More information is available at www.braveminds.org.

k.drelich@theday.com

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