From Healer to Healed: A Purple Heart Recipient’s Story of Recovery
Posted by Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center on March 2, 2018
Sergeant Wendell Guillermo heard screams all around him. The year was 2005 in Mosul, Iraq, and his Army unit was hit by a fragmentary grenade. Despite sustaining his own injuries and lacerations, Wendell sprang into action and put his medical training to use, attending to his comrades and applying a tourniquet to the leg of a fellow soldier. For his injuries, Wendell was awarded the Purple Heart.After being examined at the combat support hospital in Camp Diamondback, Wendell demanded to be released to his unit so he could help them. At the time, assessments for TBI after a combat incident weren’t required.“I think at the time I still had that adrenaline rushing through me,” Wendell said. “But after that day when I was released, I felt that adrenaline rush just kind of seep out, and I started feeling the aches and pains, headaches, stuff like that.”Wendell remained deployed, but he was already noticing changes to his daily life. Now, it was Wendell who needed help.“After the grenade attack, I experienced [sic] irritability, sensitivity to light and sounds and began forgetting things,” Wendell said. He was also experiencing abnormal dizzy spells.It wasn’t until 2007 that a Department of Veterans Affairs polytrauma unit in Los Angeles diagnosed Wendell with a mild to moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI). He says the diagnosis “lifted a weight off his shoulders” and allowed him to learn more about his condition.“[The diagnosis has] given me the ability to work around it,” Wendell said. “I can be creative, in a way, to mitigate these issues, and cope with day-to-day activities.”Wendell went to school, receiving a bachelor’s degree from UCLA. He says that establishing a network of support is critical for any veteran’s recovery, especially for those veterans going back to school. He continues to recover with the support of friends he made on campus.“You can make those connections on campuses. They have veterans groups where you can go… and relate with fellow veterans who have gone through the same service. Some even might have a TBI.”Today, Wendell is working as a software developer for an e-commerce startup in Los Angeles. He continues to recover, hiking to de-stress and honing his ability to focus by building web applications for work. Wendell urges all veterans, service members and their families to be proactive in seeking assistance if they feel they may have a brain injury.“There’s a saying in the military that we have that is, ‘Help me help you.’ No one can help you out if you can’t help yourself. You’ve got to be proactive. Be assertive in seeking out those treatments for TBI.”Visit Stories on the A Head for the Future website to hear more compelling stories of recovery and hope from other service members and veterans. Have a story to share with our team? Submit your story by email today.
Posted by Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center on Feb. 26, 2018
While walking to work on a rainy day, Michelle Trotter, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, slipped and landed headfirst on the floor. The accident caused problems with her depth perception and persistent headaches—symptoms she didn’t realize resulted from traumatic brain injury (TBI). Doctors checked her visible injuries, monitored her progress, and sent her back to work.Trotter, who was a medical readiness officer while in the Army Reserve, later sustained two additional TBIs before she was diagnosed with a TBI. She sustained the first TBI after she became dizzy and collapsed while loading groceries into her car. Years later, she had another TBI while completing a 20-mile bike ride when an impatient driver tried to veer around her group and hit her in the process. She was wearing a helmet, which helped minimize the seriousness her injury.After the third TBI, Trotter was sent to a local hospital then transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, for a brain scan. It was there doctors discovered a moderate TBI. After the TBI diagnosis, doctors worked with her to create a treatment plan for her difficulties with depth perception, dizziness, and balance issues, along with pain and persistent headaches.Throughout her treatment, Trotter met with a series of health care professionals and credits them with helping her to recover quicker. She started occupational, physical and behavioral health therapies, and later recreational therapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Maryland. While she can’t bike yet, she has learned new skills such as fly fishing, archery and knitting.“I want people to take advantage of all the opportunities presented to them so they can experience those, and meet people who are in similar situations as themselves.”Trotter also emphasized the importance of having a personal support system, in the form of a family member or friend. “I want people to make sure they always have someone there to support them, that understands health care, the situation, and can serve as an advocate,” she said.Trotter is excited to get back to doing the things she enjoys—like biking and teaching others to ski. Until then, she’s diligently keeping her appointments and completing her treatments with a positive attitude. “I try not to own the ‘sick’ label so I don’t get stuck in that world," she said. "I don’t want that to be my normal.”Visit stories on the A Head for the Future website to hear more compelling personal accounts of recovery and hope from other service members, veterans and caregivers. Have a story to share with our team? Submit yours by email today.
Combat Veteran Pursues Medical Degree While Managing TBI
Posted by Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center on Feb. 21, 2018
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Karl Holt was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 when his helicopter crashed while evading enemy fire. He was severely wounded and lost consciousness before waking up and being medevaced to safety. Holt, a Special Forces medic, was treated for a broken leg and back. Then, his doctors checked up on one more area, his brain. Holt was given a Military Acute Concussion Evaluation, commonly known as the MACE, which is often used to assess a traumatic brain injury (TBI). But, because he wanted to return to work he masked his symptoms to avoid a diagnosis, he was allowed to return to duty without any further evaluation. While Holt was home recovering from other injuries, he signed up for college classes. That's when he noticed he had trouble writing a two-page paper. “It took me 36 to 48 hours. I just couldn’t convey [my thoughts on] my paper—I had trouble finding words,” he said. “That was the first time it started to sink in that something wasn’t right with my head and my thinking.” Holt dropped the class. He experienced other symptoms, too, such as frustration (which he attributed to PTSD), forgetting where he put things, and trouble sleeping. Despite these challenges, he continued to serve.Three years later, Holt felt out of control. “My symptoms were so bad and I was getting depressed. I felt dumb and incapable, and it was getting in the way of things I wanted to do with my life,” he said.Holt met with a medical provider at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who diagnosed him with a mild TBI. He started a treatment program that included optical, occupational, hand-eye coordination and cognitive therapies, in addition to daily exercises he completed on his own. He no longer wanted to let his symptoms get in the way of his life and he truly believed he could get better.“I realized I’m in the driver’s seat,” he said. “What’s done is done, and I can learn how to deal with it and get better.”Two years after starting therapy, Holt felt ready to go after one of his biggest goals: applying to medical school. He got into medical school at the University of North Carolina, retired from the Army after nine years, and started classes. Holt continues to work toward his medical degree and soon will become a doctor. Though he occasionally has trouble concentrating, he knows how to manage it. He doesn’t know if he could have reached this point if his experience with TBI hadn’t pushed him to excel and find his passion.“You have to have something that will make you get out of bed when you don’t need to get out of bed," he said. "You need to find some purpose.”Visit the A Head for the Future website to hear more compelling personal stories of recovery and hope from other service members and veterans. Have a story to share with our team? Submit yours by email today.