Atlanta, GA,
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Life Coach Extends a Lifeline to Military Service Members with Brain Injury

Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative provides program graduates with a safety net even after they go home.

Dustin Ellison, of Pisgah Forest, N.C., served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 12 years as a bulk fuel specialist. After his discharge from the Marines in 2013, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as a traumatic brain injury (TBI). As a result, he had trouble sleeping. He lost his appetite. He forgot appointments and had trouble focusing on tasks.

At the urging of a family member, Dustin enrolled in Shepherd Center's SHARE Military Initiative, a comprehensive rehabilitation program that focuses on assessment and treatment for service men and women who have sustained a mild to moderate TBI and PTSD from combat in post-9/11 conflicts.

During his four months at Shepherd Center, Dustin worked on his balance, speech and hearing, as well as learned strategies to improve his memory and reading comprehension. He also attended counseling to help heal his emotional scars. When he left the program in January 2016, he felt confident in his new skills, but was still nervous about returning home.

“What we went through is a pretty big deal,” Dustin says. “It can be easy to fall back into that hole.”

To extend that continuum of support to clients after they graduate from SHARE, Shepherd Center is now providing a life coach to each client to follow them a year after graduation. Erin Garland, CTRS, who worked as a recreation therapist at Shepherd Pathways, Shepherd Center’s post-acute brain injury program, started as a SHARE life coach in 2015. The position is funded through a grant from the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

“It can be a hard transition back home,” says Jackie Breitenstein, MS, CTRS, CCM, manager of SHARE. “Isolation is common within this group, and even after the improvements they’ve made here, they could go back to feeling isolated.”

Garland meets with clients weekly starting three weeks prior to graduation to discuss a transition plan that includes memory and communication strategies, as well as a plan on how to handle medications. Critical to this is also identifying and educating what Garland calls their circle of support – the people at home who can provide help when they return.

“Knowing I will be there after they graduate reduces the stress and worry of going home,” Garland says. “They have SHARE in their back pocket, and can sustain the gains they made at Shepherd Center and continue to improve. It’s like an exhale.”

Once clients return home, Garland checks in with them 72 hours after graduation, a week after graduation, then weekly for the first month, monthly until six months and then at nine and 12 months. Garland documents each client’s progress at those intervals. She checks in on them both by phone and in person, travelling to anywhere a SHARE client is. She will make home visits up to eight times within a year based on client needs, the SHARE team’s recommendation, and family support.

“Home visits are really the key part of life coaching,” Breitenstein says. “Erin will fly or drive to client’s home to provide continued education support to client and family so the strategies learned at SHARE can be implemented at home.”

Aside from general support, Garland helps clients reintegrate into the community, problem-solve and even help with things like figuring out insurance. The phone calls or visits also provide a level of accountability for following through on the strategies that support their success, she says.

The program is only a year old, however Jackie says preliminary data indicates life coaching is a valuable part of the success of the service member reintegrating back into the community. “We see continued success after they leave,” she says. “There’s a connectedness of not feeling left behind.”

Dustin agrees, noting that Garland will sometimes help him get back on track, if necessary, and he likes knowing she is there.

“I have somewhere to turn if something happens,” he says. “It gives me some reassurance. It’s like having a lifeline.”

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Written by Sara Baxter
Photos by Louie Favorite

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.