Despite the odds, Emerson Beach survived being shot in the head twice while serving in the U.S. Navy. The traumatic brain injury ended his military service at age 24, but Beach went on to earn a degree from The Citadel, leading to a 20-year career as an electrical engineer.
A few years ago, Beach found it difficult to work and started experiencing epileptic seizures. His VA provider determined that he was no longer able to work and needed brain surgery to remove part of his brain. After the surgery, Beach stopped having seizures, but felt his life started to take a downward spiral.
“Prior to the surgery, I felt very smart,” said Beach. “After the surgery, I was very limited in spelling, technical activities and remembering. I didn’t ever feel like doing anything, and even was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts.”
Beach’s provider suggested that he start volunteering at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina to help keep him actively engaged. He did just that, and more.
“We have three computers in the hospital and Emerson takes Veterans to these computers and shows them how to find a forgotten password, lab results and answers their questions,” said Heather Friesen, a My HealtheVet coordinator who works with Beach. “He really helps Veterans see the value in My HealtheVet and he takes the time to explain the benefits available to them.”
Since 2012, Beach has been volunteering 40 hours a week with the Charleston My HealtheVet team. He enjoys helping fellow Veterans and on a good day he has been known to help 20 or more register for My HealtheVet.
“I couldn’t just stay at home all day,” said Beach. “I needed to do something meaningful and I feel like I add value by helping Veterans sign up for My HealtheVet.”
Beach also participates twice a week in a program run by Rein and Shine, an equine therapy facility. The program was introduced through the Charleston VAMC’s Veteran Enrichment Center, a transitional learning center that teaches skills and promotes community opportunities essential for Veterans to develop an active and meaningful life in their home community. During his therapy sessions he cares for, rides and interacts with the horses.
Beach also volunteers as a local expert and helps teach other Veterans about how to care for and ride the horses.
“I never thought I would ride a horse, or help teach someone else how to ride a horse,” Beach said. “The program is great for Veterans because it allows them to learn step-by-step and helps build them up, which keeps them in the program.”
Each month, the Charleston ABC News 4 chooses one person to win a Jefferson Award for community service. The Jefferson Awards Foundation, founded in 1972 by the American Institute for Public Service, empowers others to have a maximum impact on the things and people they care about the most. This year, Beach was chosen as one of the Jefferson Awards winners, a well-deserved honor because he truly exemplifies someone who does extraordinary things without asking for recognition.
About the author: Treva Lutes is a program specialist for VHA’s Office of Connected Care.