Helping caregivers of wounded warriors topic of nursing research with goal of national dissemination

Military caregivers invited to March 7 free, fun program

SAN ANTONIO (Feb. 26, 2013) — In August 2011, Martha Loomis received a phone call from her husband who was deployed to Afghanistan. After letting her know he was alive, Trevor Loomis gave the phone to a nurse who explained what had happened.

Trevor, who was a sergeant in the U.S. Army, was on a mission when someone detonated an improvised explosive device. Shrapnel from the IED caused a traumatic brain injury and damaged his eyes and face.

Martha packed her car with clothing and supplies for the estimated two weeks she thought she would be gone from their home in Fort Riley, Kansas. With their 7-month-old son, the new mother drove to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio. The family never returned to their home.

After 15 days, Trevor was discharged from the hospital. The former fiercely independent husband was physically weak and dealing with significant injuries. Back and neck injuries from a previous deployment had been exacerbated. Trevor, 31, also was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Because of the brain injury, he could no longer remember things. He couldn’t remember to take medicine or schedule follow-up medical appointments. I had to do all the daily activities for him. When you care for someone who was always the person in charge, it is hard to have a role reversal. Your relationship is dramatically altered,” she said.

While caring for her husband and an infant in a hotel near BAMC, Martha was told about a program geared to caregivers of wounded warriors. At first, she was reluctant to participate. “My husband and my son were my equal first priorities. I was not even on the list,” she said.

Denise Miner-Williams, Ph.D., RN, assistant professor in the School of Nursing at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio, said caregivers share a similar mindset; they subjugate their own needs to those of their loved ones.

“These caregivers are not only dealing with their loved ones’ physical wounds but also sometimes the invisible wounds of PTSD. The wounded warriors’ invisible wounds can result in anger, personality change, lack of motivation and depression,” said Dr. Miner-Williams, who is a retired Army nurse.

When wounded warriors are released from the hospital setting, they are sent home. “All the follow-up treatment is theirs and their caregivers’ responsibility. They sometimes never go back to where they had been living. They stay close to military medical care. Their lives are forever changed. I had one caregiver tell me that she lost herself for three years. We had to figure out a way to help the caregivers,” she said.

Dr. Miner-Williams had previously worked on a research study involving a program for caregivers of loved ones with dementia. She decided to take that program and adapt it to the military caregiver.

The “Stress-Busting Program for Family Caregivers of Wounded Warriors” began in 2010. Caregivers in the program meet once a week for 90 minutes for nine weeks. A new session of the program begins each time a group of eight caregivers is created. They meet at BAMC, churches and local facilities with the South Texas Veterans Health Care System.

“This is so important because the family caregiver can end up having physical and emotional issues resulting from the stress of caregiving. We want them to identify the stress and to learn methods of dealing with it,” she said. “We help them look at where they are and how they are doing. We try to get them to stop and see what can be changed. We help them learn to either change what they can or change how they react to the stressors in their lives,” Dr. Miner-Williams said.

The nine-week program includes an interactive handbook where caregivers take notes and do self-reflections. The program also involves nurturing the caregivers and letting them know they are important, she said. At the end of each session, a stress-relieving activity – such as deep relaxation breathing, an art project, massage therapy, meditation or aromatherapy – is scheduled.

As part of the research study, participants were tested before and after the program. “Across the board, we saw improvement in their quality of life. The research phase will end in June. We are looking at ways to disseminate the program to keep it going,” Dr. Miner-Williams said.

Martha Loomis said she is thankful she participated in the program. “You have to give yourself permission to take care of yourself. When I attended the sessions, I felt a real sense of community which I had been lacking. I felt I was finally with people who understood what I was going through,” Martha said.

Once her husband was stronger and didn’t need her assistance throughout the day, Martha accepted an offer from Dr. Miner-Williams to become a facilitator for the stress-busting program. With a background in counseling and a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling, Martha is the ideal person to help other caregivers, said Dr. Miner-Williams.

Martha said, “I love that I can help others while doing something that gives me a sense of purpose. This program did so much for me. It gave me a way to process my grief and my loss. You have to grieve the life you had before and who we were before. We have to accept our new lives.”

Trevor, who was medically retired from the Army, is now attending The University of Texas at San Antonio.

Caregivers of wounded warriors are invited to attend “A Night of Stress-Busting Fun” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 7, at the School of Nursing on the campus of the UT Health Science Center, 7703 Floyd Curl Drive. Past, current and future participants of the caregiver program are invited to attend. To make a reservation to attend the March 7 event or for more information on the program, call 210-617-5300, ext. 14171.


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