veterans

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Ringing In Your Ears? Finally, Researchers Finding New Clues About Tinnitus

Alan Starr, an audio engineer, has tinnitus as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing. (Courtesy of Alan Starr)

Alan Starr, an audio engineer, has tinnitus as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing. (Courtesy of Alan Starr)

By Richard Knox

Alan Starr remembers being blown back by the bomb’s force. He had come to watch a friend cross the Boston Marathon finish line on that fateful April day.

Starr, a 52-year-old audio engineer who makes his living by his ears, suffered no visible injury. But, like at least 70 other marathon bombing victims, he’s left with a never-ending reminder of that moment — a death knell that never stops ringing in his head.

“It’s a very high pitch like a whistle,” he says. “It doesn’t waver. It’s just constant, 24/7.”

It’s called tinnitus, and it’s beginning to get the attention it deserves.

Nearly a million veterans suffer from tinnitus. 

This is partly due to the Boston Marathon bombings. Starr and a few dozen other bombing victims are participating in studies supported by the One Fund, created to help bombing victims, that are aimed at devising an effective treatment.

An even more powerful driver of tinnitus research is the enormous incidence of the problem among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who’ve suffered blast damage. Nearly a million veterans suffer from tinnitus. That makes it the leading service-related disability — far outstripping PTSD.

And tinnitus — most often pronounced TIN-uh-tiss — is surprisingly common in the general population. At least one in every six Americans suffers from tinnitus — around 50 million people. Of these, the condition is “burdensome” for 20 million, according to the American Tinnitus Foundation. Two million of them have severe, disabling tinnitus, often accompanied by depression.

The problem has no cure and no very effective treatment. But after decades of dead-end research, scientists are beginning to figure out what causes the constant ringing, whistling, whooshing or hissing that makes sufferers feel trapped inside their own heads.

New research is providing some surprising clues. Continue reading

Mass. VA Clinic, Hospital Wait Times Vary Widely

In a state that prides itself on access to great health care, wait times at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics vary widely, with some facilities in central and western Massachusetts delaying appointments at much higher rates than in the affluent east.

Nearly 9,000 medical appointments at VA facilities in Massachusetts – about 2 percent of the state’s total during the six-month period ending in February- failed to meet the department’s goal of completing medical appointments within 30 days.

That’s better than the national average of 2.8 percent, but nearly half the delays in Massachusetts occurred at only three of the state’s 20 facilities, according to government data reviewed by the Associated Press.

“We’re working to get the veterans into their appointments in a more timely manner. It’s a work in progress.”

– Dennis Ramstein, Central Western Mass. VA spokesman

The AP analysis of six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide found that the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has stayed flat since Congress began pumping $16.3 billion dollars into the VA system in August. The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

Many of the delay-prone hospitals and clinics are clustered within a few hours’ drive of each other in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA’s sluggish planning process.

Continue reading

Related:

Massive Disparities In VA Health Benefits: Better In Boston Than Cape

George Murray was able to access his VA benefits relatively easily while living in Boston; other vets have run into challenges. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

George Murray was able to access his VA benefits relatively easily while living in Boston; other vets have run into challenges. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The clear takeaway of Martha Bebinger’s story today on disparities in veteran’s health benefits is this: better to be a vet in Boston than Brewster.

In the first of a series of reports on the lives of American troops at home, WBUR’s Bebinger focuses on some of the vast geographical differences in spending and access to health care and how it all plays out for Massachusetts vets. Here’s a chunk of her story:

Many of these issues play out in Massachusetts, where the VA spends four times as much on health care for veterans in Boston as it does on Cape Cod.

“This was my challenge coin when I was state commander,” says George Murray, 69, the leader at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1018 in Boston. “We all come up with sayings when we’re state commanders, and mine was to ‘communicate, dedicate and educate.’ ”

Murray served in Vietnam, and he says his health problems — lung cancer, heart disease, heart attacks, strokes — started after exposure to Agent Orange. He gets almost all of his care at VA hospitals and clinics and has almost no complaints.

“The service at the VA has been outstanding,” he says. “You get great care. The food isn’t bad. The coffee stinks. If they improved their coffee, I’d go up there for coffee in the morning.”

Places like Boston, with special VA services for elderly, homeless and low-income vets, tend to have sicker patients and higher VA health care spending. That may help explain why the VA spends $25,000 on medical services per veteran patient every year in Boston and just $6,500 per patient on Cape Cod.

Convenience is also a big factor. For 20 years, Murray went to one of two VA medical centers in Boston, both within 4 miles of his home.

But for Ron Percy, a Vietnam veteran on Cape Cod, access to VA services is a different story. When Percy woke at 3 a.m. one morning last July with chest pains, he was a long way from his assigned VA hospital.

“I couldn’t breathe,” he says. “There’s no way I could go the 75 miles to Providence.”

Cape Cod veterans have a clinic for checkups, but for almost everything else, they’re sent to the VA in neighboring Rhode Island. After his heart attack, Percy had bills from a Cape Cod hospital that the VA has so far refused to pay. He appealed, and the VA says it is reviewing his case. For all of his planned care, Percy makes the three-and-a-half- to four-hour round trip.

“A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, so I had 44 treatments that I had to go to Providence for every single day,” Percy says.

He got to Providence in a van run by volunteers. It would leave at 7:30 a.m. and return after all the passengers getting tests or treatment were finished. Continue reading

Silent Wars: Helping Vets Fight Mental Health Battles At Home

By Evan Bick
Guest Contributor

The movies have it wrong. Combat, at least in my experience, was not non-stop or action-packed. Those who have experienced it know that modern warfare usually involves a lot of starting and stopping. Long stretches of quiet, even boredom, can be broken in an instant.

I was deployed to Iraq as an infantry platoon leader in 2008-2009. During that time, there may not have been constant action but there was tension — my fellow soldiers and I were on edge most of time, soldiers among civilians, going on patrols in the northwest corner of Baghdad.

Evan Bick, a veteran of the Iraq war, now works with other vets struggling with mental health problems. (Courtesy)

Evan Bick, a veteran of the Iraq war, now works with other vets struggling with mental health problems. (Courtesy)

On our first day in the city, the leaders from the unit we were replacing took us on a walk through their area of responsibility. We saw the sidelong glances from civilians as Americans walked through their streets, hidden behind rifles and sunglasses, and weighed down by cumbersome body armor. We also saw an area filled with stark contrasts — stucco houses with gated courtyards in one neighborhood, and refugee camps for Iraqis displaced by ethnic violence in the next.

Deployment is a challenging experience even when it’s boring. Whether you are patrolling ‘outside the wire’ or working behind the scenes, the sense of danger is real and omnipresent. While deployed, soldiers typically work far longer hours, and with less opportunity for relaxation than they experience at their home station. Isolation from loved ones, of course, is an important challenge both for the deployed soldier and family members back home.

Even with all those challenges, the bigger battle for many veterans begins when they return home. Without a unit that shared in your experience of war, you can feel lost — more lost than you would ever feel on patrol. It’s easy to get trapped inside your own head, and to dwell on what did not go well, and what you should have done differently. The quick reflexes and adrenaline that may have helped keep you alive overseas are probably no longer helpful.

Strategies that kept you and your fellow soldiers safe, like driving fast and straight down the middle of a road, become dangerous, and loud noises or crowds may make some part of you feel like you’re back in the desert. Continue reading

Memories Of A Veteran’s Son: Living With Undiagnosed PTSD

Victor E. Beresin, DDS, was discharged as a Major from the Army, having been promoted to Captain, and won the Bronze Star for his work on the battleship in the Pacific. (Courtesy Gene Beresin)

Victor E. Beresin, DDS, was discharged as a major from the Army, having been promoted to captain, and won the Bronze Star for his work as a medic on a battleship in the Pacific. (Courtesy Gene Beresin)

By Dr. Gene Beresin
Guest Contributor

Waking my dad early in the morning was terrifying. I learned not to do it – not an easy thing for a very young kid.

When I crept into my parents’ bedroom across the hall, I found that if I jumped into bed from my mom’s side, it all went just fine. But if I even tapped my dad and woke him from a sound sleep, he jumped a mile high, looking absolutely terrified, screaming, “What is it! What’s happening? What’s going on?”

It was damn scary. I learned quickly to go to the right side of the antique maple bed, never to the left.

And if I woke Dad from a nap in his study (he would often crash on the tiny bed there, working endlessly on lectures, slides and writing his books) he would jump and scream just as loudly. I stayed away and let my mom do it.

There were also the bouts for a week or two of shaking, sweating, and turning beet red, up night after night – events I recall once or twice during my childhood. Mom said not to worry; he was just having some kind of reaction to an illness he got in the war. “Malaria,” she said. “It will pass.”

Don’t worry? My dad was convulsing. He looked like he was going to die.

No one ever told us about PTSD. The term was not even a term back then. It was the 1950’s, and later the 60’s. My generation only knew that our dads had fought in “the war,” and that now they were home.

In fact, my dad loved to watch World War II movies. We watched them together ritually, just as we watched football games. I knew he hated the Nazis, and I was glued to the screen. As I got older, I started asking questions. Continue reading

Harvard, Brigham Study: Yoga Eases Veterans PTSD Symptoms

The words “Department of Defense” and “yoga” aren’t often uttered in the same breath, let alone in a long, conscious, exhale.

But preliminary results from a small study funded by the U.S. Defense Department, and led by a Harvard Medical School assistant professor, found that veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder showed improvement in their symptoms after ten weeks of yoga classes, including meditation and breathing, done twice a week, and fifteen minutes of daily practice at home.

William Haviland never considered himself a yoga kind of guy. He served in Vietnam in 1968 during the TET offensive. Ask him about his combat experience and out comes a torrent of trauma: “I remember the things that happened, I’ve seen people killed right before my eyes,” he says. Among his vivid recollections, more than 40 years after the fact: a sergeant lured into a booby-trapped village, then castrated by shrapnel; the screams of a woman being raped and tortured all night. “I have a stream of memories,” he says, many which come out during sleep. Haviland, 63, says he frequently attacked his wife in the middle of the night, after nightmares that he was being chased by a fast-approaching enemy. Yoga, he says “took me out of myself” and had a more profound calming effect than drugs or drinking.

“PTSD is a disorder involving dysregulation of the stress response system, and one of the most powerful effects of yoga is to work on cognitive and physiological stress,” says Sat Bir S. Khalsa, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and the principal investigator of the yoga study. Continue reading