New Outreach Program to Aid Vets With Traumatic Brain Injuries

The THRIVE program was established by a $12.5 million gift from the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network. The foundation was established by actor Gary Sinise, who played a severely injured veteran in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump and has been an advocate for veterans and first responders. (Gary Sinise Foundation/Savannah La Liberte)

A new program housed at the Matthew Gfeller Center in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences aims to help hundreds of veterans over the next decade who suffer from traumatic brain injuries as a result of their military service.

The Transforming Health and Resilience in Veterans (THRIVE) program, established by a $12.5 million gift from the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network, will evaluate, diagnose and treat physical, cognitive and other health conditions in a monthlong care program for approximately 140 veterans per year over the next 10 years. Following a six-month building and pilot phase, the community-based program also will create a referral network and post-program follow-ups for as many as 400 veterans and family members every year. THRIVE planners say the program will be fully operational beginning in January.

More than 400,000 service members worldwide were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury over the past two decades, according to the Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence. North Carolina and surrounding states are home to more than 2 million veterans and tens of thousands of active-duty service members. THRIVE will benefit from the close ties the Gfeller Center has established with the military community since the center’s inception as a leading institution for traumatic brain injury research, said Jason Mihalik ’09 (PhD), co-director of the Gfeller Center and THRIVE chief executive officer.

“Our decade-long military research partnership has afforded the Matthew Gfeller Center team a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices made by our nation’s service members and the lasting impact those experiences may have on their long-term neurological and psychological health,” said Mihalik, who will direct THRIVE’s efforts along with a team of UNC clinicians and researchers. “We are thankful for this tremendous partnership with the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network to carry out the THRIVE Program’s clinical mission to benefit veterans and their families in an innovative clinical outreach program in the communities we serve.”

The THRIVE Program will build on the Gfeller Center’s research focusing on brain health initiatives and clinical trials in active-duty service members, primarily those in Special Operations Forces. These efforts have recently expanded to include Special Forces and conventional airborne soldiers.

Dr. Shawn Kane, an associate professor in UNC’s department of family medicine, will serve as THRIVE’s chief medical officer. Kane also served 27 years as an Army physician.

“It is important for us to leverage our expertise and health care resources to assist our veterans who may have developed long-term, complex physical and neurological health issues from combat-related exposures in service to our nation,” Kane said.

Following a pre-visit clinical intake process, veterans will undergo a multidisciplinary wellness examination. Housing will be provided to those who qualify for the program. A team of physicians, neuropsychologists, athletic trainers, physical therapists, social workers and counselors will create and implement a care plan for each veteran.

The program will provide participants with assistance in completing a treatment plan and connecting them with a follow-up treatment plan closer to where they live after finishing the core monthlong intervention. THRIVE Program managers will check in with participants at least four times in the year following completion of the THRIVE Program: at the one-month, three-month, six-month and one-year marks.

“The THRIVE Program is an important example of our culture of collaboration and how we are addressing the health care needs in North Carolina both in research and clinical operations,” said Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, who also is a concussion researcher and founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Center. “Carolina’s commitment to service, particularly in supporting our military veterans, is foundational, and we must find new and innovative ways to meet the needs of the people of our state and beyond.”

The Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network is a cognitive health and mental wellness network providing transformative care to veterans and first responders experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and substance abuse. The network helps “heal the invisible wounds afflicting our veterans, first responders and their families, transforming struggle into strength, and lifelong post-traumatic growth.”

“There are many overlapping symptoms between traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress that make diagnosis and treatment incredibly difficult,” said Dr. James Kelly of the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network. “All too often, veterans receive inadequate or incomplete care that does not address the true cause of their pain. We are thrilled to partner with UNC’s Matthew Gfeller Center to help heal the invisible wounds afflicting our veterans.”

Participants in THRIVE will be treated regardless of insurance coverage, ability to pay or discharge status due to traumatic brain injury or psychological health conditions. Veterans who want to learn more can email or apply for care on the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network website.

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