SHARE Military Initiative Extends a Lifeline
Expansion allows Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative to cast a wider net in treating service men and women.
Migraines, hearing loss and a popping jaw were Rojean Sanders’ obvious reminders of the M-16 rifle butt that fractured her eye, skull and jaw during a U.S. Army training exercise gone wrong. Those symptoms alone, however, weren’t why Rojean often hid in her darkened Macon, Georgia, home. The traumatic brain injury she had sustained left her depressed, and the onset of post-traumatic stress trapped her in mental quicksand.
Thankfully, her mentors and fellow military veterans, Jarrad Turner and Paul VanDrie, had both completed brain injury rehabilitation in Shepherd Center’s SHARE (Shaping Hope and Recovery Excellence)) Military Initiative. The two of them gently, but persistently, told Rojean about the life-changing, comprehensive program in Atlanta.
“They saw how withdrawn I was, the anger and frustration on my face,” Rojean says. “They knew something was wrong. When they saw me, they saw who they used to be.”
Rojean finally relented, but she still had her doubts during the SHARE admissions application process.
“The staff was so nice,” she says, laughing now. “They were so positive, just unrelenting, you know? I thought, ‘Oh, no, this isn’t going to work with me.’”
“But I came to realize their enthusiasm and dedication wasn’t a front. It was sincere,” Rojean recalls. “I’m here to tell you, they saved my life.”
Building on a Strong Foundation
Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative launched in 2008, thanks to a gift from Atlanta philanthropist and Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, through The Marcus Foundation. Since its inception, the program has treated more than 550 military service members and veterans who have been diagnosed with mild-to-moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI), along with co-occurring post-traumatic stress (PTS) or other mental health concerns – both hallmark wounds of the post-9/11 conflicts.
In its first decade, SHARE has experienced significant success in reintegrating service members into their communities, workplaces and homes. Crucial to those transformations is the comprehensive nature of the rehabilitation program, which fosters team-like camaraderie, but also provides personal assessments and individually tailored, goal-focused treatment for each client.
Services include physical, occupational and recreational therapy, mental health services, behavioral health training, PTS treatment, pain management, individual and family therapy, cognitive rehabilitation, vision and vestibular evaluation and treatment, life skills training, and client and family education. One of the most unique and powerful aspects of SHARE is the support it provides even after clients graduate from the program. Each graduate is assigned a life coach, who works with them for another year after they return home. The life coach visits clients at home, goes with them to appointments at the Department of Veterans Affairs, keeps them accountable and helps them reconnect with their local community. The life coach also serves a vital function in educating a client’s support system at home, including family, friends and, if appropriate, school or employer.
“Nobody else does that,” says Jackie Breitenstein, MS CTRS, CCM, SHARE program manager. “Most places, you get a business card when you walk out the door. We know life doesn’t happen here. Life happens at home.”
All of these services are provided for free to service members and their families. SHARE is almost entirely sustained by private donations. This means Shepherd Center must raise $150,000 a month – $1.8 million annually – to keep the program thriving.
“We remove barriers to care for our clients,” says Russell Gore, M.D., SHARE’s medical director. “We’re not going to say, ‘We don’t do that,’ or ‘You need to go somewhere else,’ or ’You don’t qualify for that service or technology.’ That’s not in our lexicon at Shepherd Center. Thanks to our donors, we can take care of the whole person and what they need.”
SHARE: The Next Generation
More than 361,000 U.S. service members have been diagnosed with mild or moderate TBI since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, according to the Department of Defense. Statistics like that are why, in 2016, The Marcus Foundation awarded Shepherd Center a $3.8 million grant to purchase and renovate a 15,000-square-foot building at 80 Peachtree Park Drive, just north of the hospital’s main campus in Atlanta. As of June 2017, 80 Peachtree Park Drive became the new home of the SHARE Military Initiative with the goal of eventually doubling the program’s capacity to serve at least 100 service members and veterans each year.
“We’re bringing everything under one roof, expanding our services and technology, and increasing opportunities for collaborative, innovative rehabilitation,” Dr. Gore says. “This move also allows us to better track clients during the program, to research why it works and make it easier for others to replicate what we’re doing, successfully.”
Clients usually stay in the program for 10 to 12 weeks. Thanks to the expanded space and additional clinical staff, the program will eventually offer shorter-term, single-service support for graduates who need a “tune-up.” Ideally, shorter stays will focus more extensively on specific areas of need, such as pain management, behavioral health, vocational training and more.
“Many of these ideas come from our clients themselves,” says Susan Johnson, MA, CCC-SLP, CCM, director of Brain Injury Services at Shepherd Center. “We listen to their needs and goals rather than what we think they should be. This is truly a patient-focused program, and that speaks to our great outcomes.”
Ready for Help
Sgt. Gary S. Herber, U.S. Army (ret.), joined the Army in 2007. Deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, he served nearly a year as a .50-caliber machine gunner on a quick-reaction force. Whenever his division’s forward-operating base was hit by incoming mortar fire, as others took cover, his team would pile into MRAP trucks and try to find where the rounds originated.
Gary considers himself lucky. Many of his platoon members took several hits in their vehicles. Gary was only hit once, but it was a big one. Around midnight on September 4, 2009, a 500-pound ammonium nitrate bomb exploded under his MRAP, creating a crater in the earth big enough to swallow the whole vehicle.
Gary sustained a concussion and TBI in the blast exposure. Since then, he says, he hasn’t functioned the same again.
“Since 2009, I’ve basically had to relearn the things you learn as a kid, down to the ABCs, arithmetic, all of it,” he says. “And that doesn’t even touch the psychological effects.”
Gary says the Army gave him a “fair shake” in providing healthcare services after he retired in 2012, but seeing a therapist, a counselor or a physician on separate visits a few times a year wasn’t enough.
“There’s only so much progress you can expect out of visits spaced out that much,” Gary explains. “You just end up on more meds, rehashing the same problems over and over again.”
Dr. Gore knows precisely what Gary has experienced. Veterans Affairs medical facilities are overwhelmed by thousands of patients, being seen by different clinicians for different symptoms. Dr. Gore says it’s not abnormal for veterans to begin the SHARE program on 15 to 20 different medications.
Frustrated, separated from the structure of the Army and missing the support of his platoon, Gary recoiled from his family, friends and society at large. By 2016, he found himself dialing the Veterans Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Connected with a counselor, Gary started talking about Shepherd Center. He knew SHARE. Back in 2012, he had considered entering the program. Gary started it, but abandoned it after a few weeks.
“I wasn’t ready to admit I needed as much back then,” he says. “I wasn’t ready for the intensity of the program. Going back this past year was better than I could have ever dreamed. What had changed in that time was me. Once I gave in and embraced the work, and admitted that I couldn’t conquer this mountain alone, Shepherd Center was waiting with open arms.”
In addition to the rigor of SHARE, clients benefit from the relationships they form while in the program.
“I know there’s a science behind what they do, but I tell everyone, there’s a certain level of magic to it, too,” Gary says. “Being surrounded all day, every day, by people you know without a doubt love you, it’s magical.”
Measures of Success
Every measure of success at SHARE starts with a goal – one established by the client themselves. That pioneering, goal-based approach to outcomes has worked so well, in fact, that it’s been integrated across all of Shepherd Center’s inpatient and outpatient programs.
“My favorite goal is, ‘I want to be able to go to lunch with my daughter at her elementary school,’” Dr. Gore says, quoting one of his patients. “That’s a perfect example of why we exist.”
“Data is invaluable, and we use it every day to improve,” Johnson adds. “But when you hear from a child who says, ‘Thank you for bringing my dad back,’ or from a spouse who says, ‘Now, I have my loved one back,’ that’s a powerful testament. Families pulling back together and veterans believing there’s life after deployment, that’s when we know we’re making a real difference.”
For Rojean, success is measured in before and after comparisons.
“Before, I was an angry person,” she says. “I didn’t have a purpose in life anymore. Because of my brain injury, I was told I wouldn’t be able to finish school. I was only told the things I wouldn’t be able to do, and I allowed that to become my outlook on life.”
“After SHARE, I’m a more determined, humble, appreciative person,” she explains. “Thanks to what I learned at Shepherd Center, if I can’t get to a destination one way, I come up with four, five, six other ways to get there. I’m more social and don’t keep so much to myself. I don’t use my disability as a crutch anymore. I left my old self there at Shepherd Center and came out a new person.”
That new person now has a college degree, is president of her school’s honor society and speaks to large groups about her journey. She even spoke to staff and students at the University of Georgia’s School of Business last Veterans Day. Rojean balances her days with wellness activities she learned at Shepherd Center – playing guitar, swimming, yoga and even horseback riding when she can.
For Gary, his goal was simple – to look forward to tomorrow.
“It may sound like a small thing, but I never looked forward to anything,” he says. “Everything in the future was scary. Now, I look forward to the next day. That’s big for me.”
Through SHARE, Gary was introduced to a veterans group called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a nonprofit that uses fly-fishing to build relationships with and between veterans. Today, Gary works with the group, traveling all over the Southeast and beyond.
Gary now reaches out to fellow veterans who are in the same dark places he has known all too well. With each interaction he, like Rojean, becomes an advocate for the SHARE program, recruiting those who need its help.
“There’s nobody here to judge you. It’s all about compassion, love and healing the wounds,” Gary says. “Get those feelings and emotions out there in open air where they can be tackled. The deeper you try to shove those things down, the bigger they become. When you let ‘em out, in a place like this, they’re not as big as you think. That’s when the healing begins.”
To make a gift in support of the SHARE Military Initiative, contact Jon Roxland at 404-350-7314 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit shepherd.org/share.
When Shepherd Center launched the SHARE Military Initiative in 2008, it did so with the hope that SHARE could serve as a model for other organizations to emulate. However, the comprehensive nature of the program, as well as the cost, long proved too ambitious for others to match.
That is finally changing. In May 2017, Russell Gore, M.D., SHARE’s medical director, and Susan Johnson, director of Shepherd Center’s Brain Injury Services, attended the announcement of the new Marcus Institute for Brain Health at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus. It will model some of SHARE’s services in the western United States and serve as a data repository for centers of excellence to collaborate on successes and outcomes.
The UC center is starting with support from The Marcus Foundation, the philanthropic nonprofit founded by Atlanta businessman and Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus. Marcus is responsible for funding the launch of SHARE at Shepherd Center in 2008, as well as the program’s brand-new, dedicated facility in Atlanta.
“This is an exciting development for us and for everybody who is passionate about treating all of our veterans who need this level of care,” Dr. Gore says. “We’re starting to build new collaborations with our Colorado colleagues, and this opens up a whole new world of research, communication and sharing that will aid us here, as well.”
The big-picture vision is to create a network of programs that treat veterans in different ways. This may include hospitals and rehabilitation facilities that provide intensive outpatient programs, academic institutions, PTS and mental health facilities, and other community support-based programs that have been successful in assisting service members and veterans in civilian environments.
“We’re already seeing tangible benefits of this collaboration,” Dr. Gore says, “and that means new resources and information at our fingertips. The strength of our program at Shepherd Center is the people, the innovation and the internal knowledge that we have from doing this for 10 years. Together, our strength in the future will grow thanks to collaboration with other groups.”
And the medical expertise goes a long way.
“Very few places specialize in traumatic brain injuries with the expertise we have at Shepherd Center,” Dr. Gore says. “So, we have an amazing opportunity to help guide other programs as they develop programing to address the TBI component. Then, we can discover what others have learned on the behavioral health front. It’s all about sharing data and best practices. Nobody is ignoring half the problem anymore. Now, we can play off each other’s strengths.”
Written by Phillip Jordan
Photos by Louie Favorite and Gary Meek
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.