I had headaches. They felt like a drill had been applied to the top center of my right eye socket and pushed directly in to the center of my brain.
They began small, in 2012. At first, they occurred occasionally, just small irritating headaches. The kind everyone gets. Nothing to worry about. Take some Advil, go to bed early, wake up and they’re gone. Then, they began to come more frequently, a couple times a week.
By 2014, my frequent small headaches would be interrupted by a massive headache about once a month, causing so much pain that I couldn’t think or concentrate. If I was driving, I’d have to pull over. If I was working, I’d lie on the floor until it passed. Sometimes, they would last 15 minutes, but sometimes they wouldn’t go away until I went to sleep.
By 2016, I was having small headaches almost every day and bad headaches 2-4 times a month and by 2018 I was having a constant small headache from the time I woke in the morning till I went to sleep, and weekly migraine headaches (as my doctors would later classify them).
I was still being treated only symptomatically though. I was told to take Aspirin or Tylenol. I was told they were probably caused by stress and that I should try to relax more. Of course, it’s difficult to relax with a drill bit in your head.
In addition to the headaches, I hadn’t been sleeping well since the last time I returned from combat in 2007. I would often lie in bed for hours trying to force myself to sleep and failing, usually clocking only 2-3 hours of nightly shut eye. And by 0400, I’d be wide awake.
I began to notice a loss of patience and an ease to anger that I had never experienced before.
Finally, after seeing a counselor for two years, I was diagnosed with mild PTSD.
To top it all off, I had severe arthritis in both knees so that I couldn’t walk without a limp and my low back was in constant pain so that I could barely sit in front of a computer for over an hour straight.
And my retirement date was rapidly approaching, only three months left in the Army.
I heard of a Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center in Tampa, FL from a friend of mine. He had received treatment there and recommended that I apply. I found the documents on-line and submitted them to my unit medical office for signatures. The medical professionals looked the documents over, called the rehab center, and decided I needed more tests prior to going. The Polytrauma centers were excellent facilities, but they were usually reserved for patients who had been diagnosed with TBIs, I had never been even screened for a TBI.
Could I have a TBI and not know? I’d had multiple head injuries in my career, though most of them weren’t listed in my records.
My last event had occurred in 2007, while I was preparing to escort then-president George Bush’s convoy through the streets of Bogota, Colombia. My team would be the quick reaction defense force traveling above his convoy in helicopters, ready to fast rope down and secure the area in case of attack. To rehearse for this contingency, we did multiple fast rope practices with full equipment, and in one practice I found myself falling about 15 feet to the ground and being knocked unconscious for a couple seconds. When I woke, my team was crowded around me trying to give first aid. But I shook it off and we continued training, because that’s what we do. We accomplish the mission, especially important missions such as this one. After the President left Colombia, we went back to our normal training in Southern Colombia, and I felt fine, so I didn’t even think of the incident again. And my medic didn’t think to log it.
The year before, while deployed to Afghanistan, after a 36-hour mission, my driver crashed our hummer and my head smashed into the windshield, cracking the glass and crushing the night vision goggles on my helmet. I exited the vehicle, still a little stunned, trying to get my bearings and checking to see if everyone was alright. We returned to the base, and by the time we arrived, I felt fine and never mention the incident again.
After 30 years as an airborne qualified trooper, with over 120 static line jumps, I had had a number of hard landings. Sometimes, my helmet fell off on exiting the aircraft and I would inevitably smash my bare head against the ground as I conducted my perfect Parachute Landing Fall.
After 25 years as a Green Beret, I had worked around a lot of explosives, to include IEDs. I’ve felt the blast of the explosives close to my head and heard the ringing in my ears as I assaulted the objective or defended the convoy.
None of these things are logged in my records because for me and a lot of my peers, it was just what we did on a daily basis. It was just life. Life happens.
In 2018, 3 months before my retirement, my unit’s medical officer scheduled me an appointment with a TBI team at our clinic where I saw a neurologist for the first time. He looked at my symptoms and all the mechanism of injuries I listed for head injuries and told me that I most likely did have a TBI. More tests would be needed to determine the severity. Polytrauma was a good option, and he issued orders for me to attend their two week assessment and treatment program, called ACE. He also prescribed me some vitamins and minerals to prevent headaches: magnesium and B2.
I had orders to leave for San Antonio in two weeks. The week before I left, I had three massive migraine headaches in three days.
I checked into the Audie Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital in San Antonio, Texas as an in-patient. While I was at the hospital, two days after my arrival, I had another massive migraine headache. When I left the hospital two weeks later, I had been headache free for five days. The daily physical therapy I received helped my knees and back, and I could walk with significantly less pain than when I entered the hospital. And I was, if not at peace, at least more accepting of my combat service in Afghanistan due to the daily visits to the Psychologist.
That is what the Polytrauma Clinic did for me; I hope it can do similar or better things for you, but the only way that can happen is if you apply.
In the next post, I will discuss the definition of a mild TBI and the signs and symptoms.