Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Hyperbarics Helps Veterans Heal
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Vinny Abney, with his certificate for completing hyperbaric oxygen therapy, has suffered with TBI for eight years since he got out of the Army in 2013 after eight years. PHOTO: Pat Boudwin
   
Wednesday, November 11, 2020
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Staff Sgt. Vinny Abney was rocked by an IED as he drove through the streets of Afghanistan. Navy Lt. Amanda Burrill suffered a traumatic brain injury following her midnight shift guarding Iraqi POWs on a Navy ship that had been converted into a prison.

The two are among 400,000 soldiers that suffered TBIs while serving in the Afghanistan and Iraqi conflicts. And they suffered in silence for years as doctors tried to figure out how to treat them.

Their quest to feel whole again recently led them to Hyperbarics of Sun Valley, where they received hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which is used to treat a variety of issues, including skin and bone infections, radiation injury, carbon monoxide poisoning and sudden hearing or vision loss.

 
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Amanda Burrill has climbed Carbonate Ridge a dozen times, mountain biked the Fox Creek loop and tackled a number of other outdoor challenges while receiving treatment at Hyperbarics of Sun Valley. PHOTO: Karen Bossick
 

Here are their stories:

  • Amanda Burrill has been on the cover of “Runner’s World” twice, armed with scads of sponsorships and brand endorsements in her illustrious athletic career.

The physical challenge offered by the military appealed to her, as well. Her father was in the Navy, and her mother escaped Saigon three days before the city fell, fleeing to Guam where she lived in a refugee camp before making her way to the United States where Amanda was born in Maine.

Burrill went to Boston University on a ROTC scholarship and after graduation deployed as a Combat Systems Officer, serving as a rescue swimmer aboard the USS Dubuque.

 
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Vinny Abney, right, shares a moment with Capt. Scotty Smiley, a ranger and combat diver who was the Army’s first active duty blind officer. Smiley lost his sight when a suicide driver blew his car up in front of Smiley’s Stryker. PHOTO: Pat Boudwin
 

It was during her first tour that she suffered an injury that transformed her “from a super athlete to a clumsy athlete.”

Burrill had finished the midnight-to-4 a.m. watch aboard the ship when it happened. But just what it was that happened she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know if she fell, striking her head and falling unconscious, or whether someone might have hit her causing her to lose consciousness.

The next three months were a blank. Her balance was off. She couldn’t read; she had difficulty speaking or articulating what she was thinking.

She became so clumsy that by people began asking if she’d been drinking at 9 in the morning. Unable to focus enough to pursue law, she enrolled in culinary school but had difficulty chopping a tomato.

 
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Amanda Burrill tries out the solo chamber at Hyperbarics of Sun Valley. PHOTO: Pat Boudwin
 

“I thought: Here, I can go to war and run an Ironman Triathlon, but I can’t chop a vegetable. What’s wrong with me!?” she recounted.

She muddled through a second tour of duty. Then in 2016—still unsteady 13 years after she’d suffered her first TBI--she tripped and fell down a flight of stairs and flew across a landing smashing the back of her head on the adjacent wall. She landed so violently that she blew a hole in her retina.

She suffered neck damage and a torn meniscus in her jaw. Her vision was fuzzy. She saw lights. She couldn’t sleep. A neuropsychological evaluated screamed that she had a TBI.

She underwent several surgeries to reconstruct her left foot, had more surgeries to refurbish her spine and yet another surgery to repair her retina. And she underwent hours of rehabilitation. But she remained in pain, unable to pursue the sports activities she so loved.

 
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Amanda Burrill grew up on the ocean and served two tours of duty with the Navy. Now, she’s ready to be a Sun Valley gal, coming all the way from New York. PHOTO: Pat Boudwin
 

When she heard that Hyperbarics of Sun Valley offered free treatments to veterans, thanks to donations, she jumped at the opportunity.

She eagerly climbed into the chamber, then sat listening to music on her headphones as she was fed 15 times more oxygen than she could possibly get on the outside.

She just finished her 31st treatment after a regimen of two treatments delivered daily.

“I began getting feeling back in my foot, then I felt my entire spine opening up,” said Burrill, who now plans to stay through the winter to enjoy the skiing and other winter activities Sun Valley has to offer.

“And it’s helped with my anxiety. It’s not a cure all. There are still things I need to work on, such as my mental health. But it’s been so remarkable.”

  • Staff Sgt. Vinny Abney saw 20 of the guys in his unit die in IED explosions in Afghanistan.

“My unit lost a lot of guys,” said Abney, who was in Afghanistan in 2009-10 and 2013-14. “We lost 20 guys, every single one of them through IEDs.”

Abney survived a few IED explosions, but they rocked his brain causing traumatic brain injury that left him in a constant mental fog. Doctors told them they didn’t have a proven treatment for TBI; it went unaddressed for several years.

“I couldn’t concentrate on anything,” said Abney, who enlisted at 18 and trained for the infantry at Ft. Lewis, Wash. “It was like having a constant hangover after drinking too much. And I also had back and shoulder issues from carrying heavy packs. I couldn’t handle it—I struggled with post-traumatic stress and drug addiction.”

Finally, Abney decided he had two options: To quit or to fight and get his life back.

He opted for the latter, deciding to try a treatment he had heard about in the small Idaho town of Hailey. He placed a call to Bas Verheijen, the executive director of the Hyperbaric Health and Wellness Foundation. And he packed everything he owned in his car and set out from California.

As soon as Abney showed up, Hyperbarics owner Phil Rainey ushered him into a small apartment on the premises. Then he showed him to a tank like that used to treat Navy divers for the bends.

“It was difficult to get in it at first because you’re in there for 90 minutes. But after three to four sessions I just relaxed, put on headphones and watched a movie while I was in there. I knew I was healing myself so it didn’t matter whether I was comfortable or not,” Abney said.

Abney underwent 40 treatments in 20 days. He noticed “considerable improvement” in both his emotional and physical health as he went from slow and lethargic to a man with a spring in his step.

“After 10 treatments, I began to notice my back pain alleviate. The inflammation went down as the oxygenation fed my cells. And I began noticing increased mental clarity.”

Abney had spent years not noticing the environment around me clearly. Now, he says, he sees  everything around him.

“I can hear it all, see the details of the mountains and the cars and the people. It’s like I put on new glasses that allowed me to see the world more clearly, to see things moving at a faster speed,” he said. “I told myself: Wow! This is what it’s like to see the world with a normal healthy brain.”

“I’m grateful I’m out and alive and that I have my arms and legs. For someone suffering TBI, PSTD, addition…it’s definitely worth trying.”

The Veterans Administration doesn’t cover hyperbaric oxygen therapy, as it is considered an alternative therapy.

But Hyperbarics of Sun Valley has provided 1,200 treatments for 40 veterans free of charge, says  Verheijen. The Albertson’s Foundation picks up the tab, with the help of the Arlene and Michael Rosen Foundation and, most recently, the Kemmerer Family Foundation.

Hyperbarics augments the hyperbaric chamber treatments counseling provided by two local counselors.  And Higher Ground recently began offering therapeutic recreational opportunities to the veterans three days a week, taking them fishing, shooting, biking and to yoga workouts.

“Outdoor activities help tremendously,” said Verheijen. “Getting out in nature helps lower depression, anxiety levels.”

HYPERBARICS TRIES PILOT PROGRAM

Hyperbarics of Sun Valley is now trying a pilot project with Men’s Second Chance Living in Hailey. Owner Phil Rainey began trying pressurized oxygen therapy treatments on the young men with substance abuse after seeing it seemed to help veterans with substance abuse issues.

“It even seems to help them fight the urge to smoke,” said Bas Verheijen.

For more information, visit www.hyperbaricsofsunvalley.com  or call 208-928-7477.

 

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