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Clinic answers call for invisible wound care

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) -- In the midst of brain injury awareness month, construction of a facility to treat traumatic brain injury is well underway at the 96th Medical Group.

Thomas Piazza, invisible wounds clinic medical director, and his staff prepare to deliver the Air Force’s first comprehensive TBI center as part of its Invisible Wounds Initiative.

The construction of the temporary TBI facility and hiring of staff will progress throughout the summer.

The clinic’s goal is to provide support and care in a trusted environment and encourage Airmen and regional service members to seek early treatment for TBI and post traumatic stress.

Clinical care, telemedicine and educational partnerships will be key components of the clinic.

“The clinic’s mission is to serve as a regional hub for active duty TBI and PTS care and to provide a complementary approach to treating pain,” said Piazza.

The fear of stigma associated with a patient’s symptoms often keeps them from seeking care. Patients also avoid treatment for fear of being considered unfit for duty and other adverse career impacts.

The TBI center and the special operations leadership community seek to reduce the stigma associated with these injuries by supporting early TBI evaluation and treatment in order to preserve the individual’s active duty status.

“Unfortunately, a delay in care can lead to worsening TBI complications and greater impairments in functioning. This leads to outcomes worse than if the service member sought care sooner,” said Piazza. “These psychological injuries decrease military readiness and take them out of the fight. That’s not just a problem for military readiness, it’s a problem for the individual and their families. The service member wants to be a part of their work and unit missions, but they just can’t.”

More than 339,462 service members have sustained a TBI since 2000, according to the Department of Defense.

TBIs are caused by a blow or a jolt to the brain during an accident or a fall. Symptoms can be debilitating and may include headaches, dizziness, memory problems, irritability, trouble sleeping or concentrating, or sensitivity to light or noise. Severe or penetrating TBI can cause behavioral, functional or psychological changes that require long recoveries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Trauma to the brain is often complicated because the brain is an interconnected organ,” said Maj. (Dr.) Khandie Waugh, 96th MDG staff psychiatrist. “When one area is affected, it affects other areas in the brain.”

Seeking early treatment for symptoms can provide a faster recovery.

To achieve long term and maximum recovery outcomes, the TBI center will provide a multi-disciplinary approach where health care specialists work together as a team to address patient needs, according to Piazza.

Providers will meet regularly to talk about patient goals, progress and make adjustments to therapy as needed.

“Being together under one roof enables close coordination between providers. The result is quicker access to comprehensive therapies for the patient and quicker recovery,” said Piazza. “The whole-person approach is where we want to go. It makes sense and it has been proven effective at DoD’s Intrepid Spirit facilities.”

This holistic approach of treating the mind and the body as a whole, rather than separate organs, will include addressing the patient's mental, physical, social, and spiritual pillars of health.

“When the pillars weaken, failures occur, and symptoms or problems arise,” said Piazza.

The new clinic will assemble teams spanning 18 specialties to blend the best of traditional medicine and procedures with proven integrative therapeutic tools such as acupuncture, art and music therapy, yoga, mind-body medicine, electrical nerve stimulation and low level energy therapies, among others.

“These therapeutic tools are outstanding complementary therapies to western medicine,” said Piazza. “These therapies fill in the gaps.”

The facility is expected to open its doors in the fall of 2018.