A regional education coordinator is one of a team of people that Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) stations at 16 regional sites around the country. The regional education coordinator serves as a key resource for service members, veterans, family members and health care providers, offering information on treating, managing and preventing traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Randy Gross, regional education coordinator at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, talks about his work.
- What exactly do you do?
- Regional education coordinators educate the community about traumatic brain injury recovery, prevention and best practices in treatment. We work with a variety of people, from individual meetings with patients to presentations before large groups of families or doctors. Most of my interactions with patients and families are at the hospital; however, I also talk with people in the community, which expands our outreach. I meet with approximately 200 individuals a year and go to 40 outside events, where I typically host an information booth and participate in panel discussions relating to military and veteran health care. These events have included veterans’ welcome-home gatherings and military-focused workshops hosted by student veterans associations at local universities.
- What inspired you to become a regional education coordinator?
- I served in the military for 10 years as an Army medic. When I left the service, I wanted to continue serving military personnel, but I wasn’t sure how. I felt a calling to work in the medical field, but I didn’t want emergency medicine to be my sole mission in life. I’m thankful someone suggested this position to me. It’s really the best of both worlds — I’m able to provide education to hopefully prevent someone from experiencing a brain injury, but I also understand TBI treatment and can support patients through the rehabilitation process.
- How has your life experience impacted your work?
One of the most rewarding positions I ever held was that of a front-line medic in the U.S. Army. Many times, I was the first responder to medical emergencies. I’ve also sustained multiple brain injuries, beginning at age three and continuing through my late twenties. Some injuries were sports-related, as I played soccer for many years. I also sustained a concussion (mild TBI) during my service, when I collided in midair with a fellow paratrooper, and my reserve parachute deployed. Because I was rapidly descending with two open canopies, I couldn’t steer clear of obstacles. I hit the tarmac — which is how I got the concussion — and was dragged more than 100 yards.
In 2010, I began working for DVBIC and found that my military experience and personal struggles with TBI helped me understand what patients go through. When I work with patients, I talk about what was helpful to me during my recovery, like writing things down and putting things back in the same place every time. One of the most common symptoms related to TBI is memory problems, and writing things down is one simple way of keeping track of things. I try to share as many helpful tools and tips that helped me during my recovery as I can.
- What challenges, if any, do you have at work?
- One of the most challenging aspects of my job is helping service members return to work — when they’re ready. The majority of our patients are on active duty and they want to get back to work as soon as they can. They have a hard time slowing down physically during recovery, especially if they’re used to being active. I emphasize the importance of allowing the brain to recover and the possibility of second impact syndrome if they sustain another concussion during the healing process. DVBIC developed guidelines to help primary care and rehabilitation providers enable their patients to gradually return to their normal routines while their brains heal. Although most people recover quickly from mild TBI, recovery can take up to 90 days. We want patients to recover as quickly and safely as possible.
- What do you find rewarding about the work you do?
- What’s most rewarding is seeing the improvement of the service members, from acute injury to rehabilitation and full recovery.
- What aspects of TBI do you focus on most with the people you talk to?
- With patients, service members and their families, I emphasize the healing process, to limit the risk of patients sustaining a second TBI while they’re still recovering from the first. Rest is very important after a brain injury because it helps the brain to heal. For providers, I emphasize education, education, education. Patients don’t know what they don’t know.
- What’s your favorite work-related story?
- One of my favorite stories was meeting a patient from the same regiment as me. He was having trouble finding words and concentrating, and also had problems with impulse control resulting from his brain injury. His doctors thought that he would have to take medical retirement. However, by focusing on completing the recovery process, he was able to return to a warrior transition unit. Now he’s training to go back through selection to rejoin his brothers in arms.
- Any other good stories?
- I conduct outreach twice a month at the Petersburg Freedom Support Center in Petersburg, Virginia, which opened its doors last year to the homeless and urban veteran population. One homeless individual I met had suffered multiple brain injuries from improvised explosive device (IED) blasts. During a one-on-one education forum, I immediately noticed that he had cognitive issues. I linked the veteran up with the center’s patient liaison, who was able to help him register for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) services. The Freedom Center was able to find the veteran housing almost immediately, but the VA process was prolonged. The VA screened the vet and found he had lingering symptoms of both TBI and posttraumatic stress disorder. Fast-forward four months: the veteran is not only off the streets but is finally recovering from his unseen injuries. He manages his short-term memory, sleep issues and mood swings so well that he’s not only able to work full time, but has also been able to fix some broken relationships.