Retiring colonel working to address traumatic brain injuries in servicemembers, athletes

By SYLVIA CARIGNAN | The Frederick News-Post, Md. (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 11, 2015

Army Col. Dallas Hack landed in Kuwait for a new assignment on Sept. 10, 2001.

At the time, he was tasked with leading medical care efforts for the Army’s forces in the Middle East, but the assignment for which he prepared was not the assignment he got.

The war in the Middle East began after the attacks of Sept. 11, and soldiers came to military hospitals with devastating injuries he’d never seen before. At that moment, Hack said, he began to understand where his talents were needed.

“That changed my focus as to what I felt like I needed to spend the rest of my life doing,” he said.

Hack, who lives near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, said he has wanted to be a doctor since he was 3 years old. He was inspired by his hometown church in Saskatchewan, Canada, which sent missionary doctors to treat people around the world.

He came to the United States and graduated from Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California in 1976.

After spending a few years working in biomedical engineering, he got an invitation from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick to work in molecular modeling.

“It was one of the best career decisions I ever made,” he said.

When he arrived at USAMRIID in 1987, he got a uniform and a new title: major.

After a few years at Fort Detrick, he went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to work in medical management and became Lt. Col. Hack. He spent a few years in hospitals abroad, then was sent to Kuwait.

At the time, there was little talk of traumatic brain injuries.

“We were caught kind of unprepared for that trauma,” he said.

The injuries American forces suffered in the theater were the “tip of the iceberg,” according to Hack.

Once generals started hearing that many service members went through treatment and suffered from mental health problems after being discharged, Hack said the field of military medicine needed to realign its priorities.

“The old ‘Be tough. Get back in there’ wasn’t working,” he said.

He returned to Fort Detrick in 2008 to work with the Combat Casualty Care Research Program. Since then, he has dedicated much of his time to finding diagnostic tests and understanding traumatic brain injuries.

“The size of this frontier really came to impress me — how nascent it all was,” he said.

Around that time, concussions and brain trauma in athletics were also coming to light. Hack said doctors weren’t prepared to treat those kinds of injuries, and parents were hesitant to put their children into contact sports.

He sought to partner with the National Collegiate Athletic Association to conduct further research, but he had little luck until the organization hired a chief medical officer in 2013.

The NCAA and Department of Defense launched a $30 million study on concussions and head injuries last year. About 37,000 student-athletes are expected to be part of the study over its three-year period.

Dr. Crystal Hill-Pryor, who worked with Hack under the Combat Casualty Care Research Program, described him as a connector.

Hack’s efforts to establish “unprecedented” partnerships among the government, universities, NCAA and NFL have contributed greatly to the field, she said.

“His dedication and service to [traumatic brain injury] has led to the advancement in the field of research and will improve the lives of many living with [traumatic brain injury],” Hill-Pryor said.

While he was director of the Combat Casualty Care Research Program, Hack and his team worked to develop tests that would detect traumatic brain injuries in the field.

A device recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration may help with that. A headset and sensors attached to a smartphone can read electrical activity in the brain and flag symptoms of traumatic brain injuries without using X-ray scans or bringing the affected service member to a hospital.

But Hack said he’s most proud of an initiative called Traumatic Brain Injury Endpoints Development, which he conceived. The initiative awards seed money to studies addressing biological markers of traumatic brain injuries, clinical studies and possibilities for drug treatment.

Hack, 63, retires this summer from his position as senior medical adviser to the principal assistant of science and technology under the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick. He intends to stay deeply involved in research on traumatic brain injuries.

“I am committed for the rest of my life to try to make a difference,” he said.

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