After receiving a $12.5 million gift from the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network, UNC’s Matthew Gfeller Center announced a new initiative to make treatment more accessible for military veterans across the state who have traumatic brain injuries.
According to its website, the Gary Sinise Avalon Network has worked to create innovative and effective solutions to help veterans and first responders get the help they may need as a result of TBI and post-traumatic stress since 2019.
The Gfeller Center is using the donation to establish the Transforming Health and Resilience in Veterans Program, which aims to utilize the center's research and health care to serve a variety of candidates in and around North Carolina who have physical and cognitive health conditions.
Jason Mihalik, co-director of the Gfeller Center and chief executive officer of the THRIVE Program, said the University is the right place for this program.
“We have all the expertise we need and tremendous assets to assist veterans and first responders in the communities we serve,” he said.
Dr. Shawn Kane, associate professor of family medicine and chief medical officer of the THRIVE Program, also said he believes UNC is a good fit for the program because of the Gfeller Center’s history of TBI-related research.
“Mihalik and Chancellor (Kevin) Guskiewicz took that initial clinical question, developed a robust program and built lasting relationships that make a difference in soldiers' lives,” Kane said.
Kane said he hopes the THRIVE Program will make a great difference in the lives of veterans and first responders by evaluating, diagnosing and treating their conditions.
Jim Ravella, vice president of programs for the Gary Sinise Foundation, said he hopes the program will inspire people to be more thankful for veterans.
“I think once people see who they are and see how amazing they are, they are going to say, ‘Wow, I am very grateful for who they are,’” Ravella said.
He also said TBI and post-traumatic stress are very prevalent among veterans, and the mission of the Gary Sinise Foundation is to help combat these conditions.
“The ultimate sacrifice of loss of life does not go unnoticed, but this issue of TBI and post-traumatic stress is rampant in our community,'' Ravella said. “These are the main drivers of our homelessness, suicide and substance abuse. Our desire is to go out there and help them.”
As veterans themselves, both Ravella and Kane offered more personal insight into the important mission of the THRIVE Program at UNC.
“One of the reasons I came to UNC after my retirement was to have the opportunity to help set up and execute some form of veterans program,” Kane said. “I think these shared sacrifices and experiences give me a unique insight into the patients we will serve.”
Mihalik said while possible advances in TBI-related research are an important part of the program, the patients are the main focus.
The THRIVE Program is scheduled to become fully operational in January, and Kane said the program should inspire a greater relationship between the Chapel Hill community and its veterans.
“When they leave (the program), they will be part of our family, and they will know we are here for them,” Kane said.
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