Behind him stood four barefoot soldiers and a doctor, ready for O’Leary to lead them through a series of yoga movements in an hour-long class at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center. Yoga is just one activity among many for soldiers undergoing therapy for traumatic brain injuries.
Dr. John Rigg, the program director of the TBI clinic at Eisenhower’s Neuroscience and Rehabilitation Center, said most of the soldiers in the program are dealing with the after-effects of multiple concussive injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. The symptoms include mood issues, memory loss, sleeplessness and headaches.
“Medicine can relieve the symptoms, but it won’t fix it,” Rigg said.
So instead, the doctors and therapists turn to “mind and body medicine,” meaning adding massages, swimming, acupuncture and yoga to counseling sessions. For soldiers whose shoulders are constantly hunched with tension, it’s a welcome chance to empty the mind.
Staff Sgt. Eric Hooker, one of many soldiers who travel to Fort Gordon from Fort Jackson, S.C., for treatment, was going through his second yoga session Wednesday. A series of blasts in Iraq contributed to his brain injury and he noticed his lack of sleep and irritability. He initially dismissed yoga, but he was converted after his first roll on the mat.
“I just felt relaxed (afterward) all day,” Hooker said.
The class is a peaceful experience; O Leary’s instructions are met with slow, noisy exhalations. Most of the moves are matched by the soldiers, though there were a few chuckles of disbelief as O’Leary brought his big toe next to his earlobe.
“Maybe in another life,” laughed Staff Sgt. Thomas Edmunds.
The quiet is a stark contrast to the noise and confusion that brought them here. While concussions are common in the civilian world, the stress and panic of a war zone only compound the symptoms of TBI, Rigg said. There’s a disconnect between the brain stem and the part of the brain that gives soldiers clues about their geographic location. That means the same hyper-alert instincts that kept them alive in Iraq are maintained in Augusta, Rigg said.
Bridging that disconnect takes time, but there are non-traditional means of medicine that speed that processs along. Rigg commends command staff for accepting his methods.
“They’re very supportive of us doing whacked out stuff,” he said with a laugh.