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UNC program aids veterans and first responders with traumatic brain injuries

THRIVE is located off-campus in the Carolina Pointe medical buildings on Sunday, April 2, 2023.

Since it began full operations last spring, UNC's THRIVE program has worked with about 60 veterans to address symptoms of traumatic brain injuries — including sleep problems, headaches, dizziness and balance issues.

THRIVE was established with a $12.5 million grant from the Avalon Network. It is part of the UNC Matthew Gfeller Center, which focuses on assessing and treating brain injuries. THRIVE is located off-campus in the Carolina Pointe medical buildings. 

The program's team of clinical specialists currently sees two or three patients with TBIs per week but aims to increase that number to four.

At the start of a patient’s experience with THRIVE, the patient participates in a “fishbowl,” telling the program's experts their personal story. Then, the patient sees 10 to 12 clinicians in Chapel Hill over three days.

The constant communication and coordination between the clinicians allow them to come up with effective treatments for veterans and first responders.

Jason Mihalik, the CEO of the THRIVE program, said that one of the key problems for people seeking medical help for traumatic brain injuries is that symptoms and remedies can be complicated. It takes a huge amount of time and effort from patients to see necessary specialists, but he said the THRIVE program seeks to streamline this process.

“At the end of two days, they've seen a year's worth of clinicians and really have a good sense at that point in time what their clinical health outlook appears to be, and that's been very powerful for the veterans,” Mihalik said.

THRIVE employs experts in fields such as musculoskeletal medicine, athletic training and pharmacology.

“There was one individual who was complaining of headaches and our vestibular (physical therapist) did a maneuver, and he felt immediate relief and just started sobbing. It was the first time in approximately eight years that he had not experienced headache,” Mihalik said.

After the patients are given recommendations by THRIVE’s clinicians, the program keeps in contact with them for up to one year. It recently completed its first two-and-a-half week long outpatient program.

Mihalik estimates that the majority of THRIVE’s patients have come from inside North Carolina. Most patients served in combat after 9/11, but THRIVE has treated two veterans who served in the Vietnam War and one in the Korean War.

There are about 700,000 veterans in North Carolina and over 2.2 million in neighboring states.

Sam Rodriguez served in the Army for 29 years and is now THRIVE’s veteran outreach and program coordinator. He said that, at the beginning of the program, veterans often feel that they are duct-taping their lives together. THRIVE helps many to accomplish their goals, he said.

“It's like they have a light that they've been given, an opportunity to find some answers," Rodriguez said. "A lot of times when we talk to them in the beginning, they say — to me it's kind of disturbing — that they don't want to be a burden on their family anymore."

Rodriguez said that it is rewarding to see the gratitude of the patients and their spouses when THRIVE can help them.

Wes Cole is a neuropsychologist with THRIVE. He previously worked on TBIs at Fort Bragg in eastern North Carolina. He said that THRIVE’s ability to get so many experts working together under the same roof is a “game changer” for TBI care.

“This really is the gold standard model for TBI care, a multidisciplinary holistic approach," he said. "It's really a wonderful program and to be able to house it in a place like UNC, which just has amazing resources, is such a benefit for our patients."

THRIVE also offers less traditional medical services to help its patients, including yoga, equine therapy and a reading group led by UNC professor Hilary Lithgow. They will soon add acupuncture.

Veterans and first responders can assess their eligibility for THRIVE by filling out a form on their website.


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