What’s in a Name: Polytrauma and How VA Cares for Severely Injured Vets

VA and the U.S. military have used the word polytrauma for nearly ten years to describe the complex, combat-related injuries sustained in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Early in these conflicts we realized we would need to establish new systems of service delivery, new models of care, and even new medical terminology to treat these severely wounded Servicemembers and Veterans. The term polytrauma fit the bill perfectly.

The simplest definition for polytrauma would be a medical condition consisting of many (poly) wounds or injuries (trauma). However, as we all know, managing the many aspects of polytrauma is far from simple. The pervasive use of improvised explosive devices (“IEDs”) and other such weapons in the current conflicts has caused extensive injuries such as: traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), amputations, burns, spinal cord injuries, complicated fractures, extensive organ damage, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other ailments – many of which often occur at the same time. Individually, any one of these conditions can present Servicemembers and Veterans with a steep climb to recovery. When a complex injury or exposure results in two or more of these conditions, then the climb is that much more challenging and often the effects can be life altering.

VA has answered the challenges for more than 50,000 Servicemembers and Veterans since 2003 by establishing a system of integrated, interdisciplinary treatment, designed to get those individuals with complex injuries and associated functional problems back to living. Teams of skilled therapists and mental health counselors, specialty-trained physicians and nurses, and dedicated case managers all work collaboratively to focus VA’s top talents on these most challenging cases. Each case is unique, and the treatment and recovery of each individual is distinctive. The one constant across all of these patients is the extraordinary courage, determination, and spirit that these injured Veterans, Servicemembers, their families and caregivers demonstrate while facing the daunting realities of their condition.

The recovery process to achieve a new level of “normal” requires a determined Veteran or Servicemember, backed by a strong supportive network, and guided by a committed team of highly skilled rehabilitation specialists. The recovery of every patient has its advancements and setbacks, joys and challenges, and the road to wellness can be long and sometimes winding. Yet, our experience with every patient advances our medical knowledge, allows us to continuously improve our care delivery and rehabilitation programs, and helps to pave the road for all who are recovering from polytrauma.

If you want to know more about how VA is treating our wounded warriors and injured Veterans and Servicemembers, or if you simply wish to feel encouraged by seeing the incredible recovery stories of some who gave so much in defense of our Nation, please visit our website, www.polytrauma.va.gov. While you are there, please take the time to watch our short documentary on some of America’s Heroes who let us follow their journey of recovery.

Our website is dedicated to sharing information and lessons learned from those who best know the Polytrauma/TBI community: the patients, spouses, family, caregivers, and medical professionals that live, work, and interact in this environment every day. They will share their lessons learned, their observations, and provide information on new programs, benefits, or support networks. While we focus on the five VA Polytrauma Rehabilitation Centers established to care for the most severely wounded, VA has over 100 sites across its Polytrauma/TBI System of Care waiting to help you with your rehabilitation health care needs.

Lucille B. Beck, Ph.D. is the Chief Consultant, Rehabilitation Services and the Director of the Audiology and Speech Pathology Program in Veterans Health Administration for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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3 Comments to “What’s in a Name: Polytrauma and How VA Cares for Severely Injured Vets”

  1. Sandra Lynn says:

    While I am not a veteran…I am concerned about the care that many servicemen may be getting initially and upon return to the USA/or at discharge. Those with polytrauma as you state that involve a TBI could be getting the worst care…..Attention is divided and things are missed. Patients with a brain injury are not taken serious. How do I know? I have been there. Then the primary provider treating the tbi is not really, in my opinion, prepared well enough to treat this patient. Mine story is a nightmare that almost drove me crazy, left me divorced and with a possible mislabeled mental health condition. I had a left hip fracture/leg that was the primary focus requiring immediate surgery. I was called a high level needs patient. I called the nurses a lot the first night for pain meds and told them my left arm was broken…Ignored due to the tbi that was deemed worse than I think it was…I was told my memories were false(not wearing seat belt…later upon getting ambulance report…I was proven right). Finally, my left arm frx was treated. My career(in the health field)was put in jeopardy by being given a test by a slp…graduate intern not supervised by an slp(less than 1 yr experince). Moving on, i was locked in to drs that misseda rt ft frx. Got new docs. In 3 years 3 other frx’s that I told the original hospital I had were confirmed. I wondered if I was crazy. My headaches and dizziness and fatigue were not apparent af first…I did not bend over to put clothes in the washer. I have a great PCP. A neuropsyche said I was bipolar and down played my idea that the headaches and moodiness were due to the wreck or physical issues. Gee all those fractures missed…And finally I got a hearing and vertigo test that said I had dysfunction of central origin. The headadches really were the worst. I withdrew from driving almost completely. I ended up with vestibular rehab…due to my own research partly….There is more…yes my doc’s missed the vetigo issue…only the test revealed it…but all the more that the primary provider needs to be better informed…Missed injuries can cause moodiness and so can dizziness…And being doubted..how many military veterans are on bipolar meds and need pt for vestibular disorder…and are still seeking pain meds…which is recorded as substance abuse?

    • GT says:

      It’s really tragic that patients have received this type of substandard care. I trust that the VA has more effective protocols in place, so these type of injuries are diagnosed properly and promptly for our nation’s bravest.

  2. SCOTT JOHNSON says:

    Yet, ALS care is still lacking in most VA hospitals. Life expectancy is 3-5 years from diagnosis. Not sure ALS vets can wait for the VA to finally catch on to the fact that they have no standardized care protocol that provides care through a ALSA/MDA ALS multi-discipline care team approach. A type of care that studies have shown improves quality and length of life at virtually the same cost. Still funding that care through an ALSA ALS clnic on my own dime despite it being a Service Connected disease since 2008.