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thedrifter
02-10-09, 10:06 AM
Medical Watch: New treatments helping to cure brain injuries for soldiers

10:59 PM CST on Monday, February 9, 2009

Meg Farris / Eyewitness News


NEW ORLEANS – It's been called the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Traumatic brain injury may have affected 320,000 service men and women, costing as much as $32,000 a year to treat.

Now a local doctor and injured soldier are part of a groundbreaking study that hopes to find a new treatment.

At 17 years old, Jake Mathers enlisted in the Marine Corps, the youngest in his division of 20,000. He served in Iraq twice.

“Until like the last two months that we were there, we literally got shot at and blown up and mortared every single day," Mathers said.

His role models: A father who flew U-2 Spy Planes in the cold war and a grandfather, George “Bud” Day, who was highly decorated in the Marine Corps Air Force. He served in Korea and Vietnam.

Day was a POW with Senator John McCain, earned several Purple Hearts and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Like his grandfather, Jake now too has the Purple Heart, and the same terrible post war nightmares.

"You think you're going to die?" I ask.

"Oh yeah, those dream – I always have those dreams, you know. They probably will never go away. My grandfather still has them, and he's in his 80s," Mathers said.

That's why Jake has come to New Orleans from his home in Monroe. He is part of a pilot study with LSU Health Sciences Center's Dr. Paul Harch.

As an emergency medicine expert, Harch has been studying in animals and humans for years if Hyperbaric Oxygen treatments, the kind used to heal wounds of diabetics and divers, can also heal brain damage.

"If you lose consciousness, you will lose brain cells. You lose brain tissue," Harch said.

And that's exactly what happened to Jake in Iraq. Nearly two dozen times he was knocked unconscious. So, along with the post traumatic stress disorder known as PTSD, he has brain damage.

"You forget where you put your cell phone, like, 10 times a day. You can't find your car keys. You can't really do anything productive without screwing it up a couple of times," Mathers said.

A video with music recorded on it, put on YouTube, shows a suicide bomber in a truck loaded with artillery shells and barrels of gasoline that hit Mathers’ observational post. Fellow soldiers lost eyes, limbs, fingers and toes.

"The gasoline went everywhere and started burning all around my body, and so I could still feel that pain in my unconscious state and it felt like I was burning. So I thought I was going to hell and it was really bad,” said Mathers, who said he thought he had died.

Jake is one of the first soldiers in the study to complete the testing, brain imaging and 40 so called "dives" in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber. And he believes it's made a difference.

"My sleep is better, I'm sleeping longer, I'm not dreaming about mean and angry things constantly,” Mathers said. “My memory, I don't even have a memory problem anymore. I don't have headaches at all any more.”
Harch said the results have been encouraging.

“Two of the three have had an over 40 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms in a 35 day period using the military's PTSD check list, which is a huge reduction in symptoms,” Harch said. “And we are also seeing improvements in memory, attention and some of the other factors.”

Harch has many critics who don't believe hyperbaric medicine can help the brain. He hopes this study will lead to bigger military studies and published scientific evidence to convince them.

At only 21, Jake hopes to convince his critics as well. "A lot of people see all the bad things that U.S. Marines do. But nobody ever sees all the schools that we build and all the medical supplies that we give,” Mathers said.

“I must have given out 10,000 soccer balls alone myself, and hundreds of pounds of candy to little kids. But nobody ever shows that.”

The study is open for people who have traumatic brain injury from a blast, with or without post traumatic stress. The injury has to have been within the last five years. People in the military are encouraged to call.

To see if you qualify, call 504-366-1445.

Ellie