A new program aims to treat veterans and NFL players who suffer from a range of neurological conditions.  MarineCorps NewYork/Flickr
A new program aims to treat veterans and NFL players who suffer from a range of neurological conditions.  (MarineCorps NewYork/Flickr)

Prone to Brain Trauma, NFL Players and Military Vets Get Virtual Care

Prone to Brain Trauma, NFL Players and Military Vets Get Virtual Care

Like many veterans, C.J. Keller returned home with unresolved trauma after a tour of duty in Iraq. He couldn't tolerate crowded places, and he sought relief by drinking heavily and working out aggressively at the gym.

"I could have been a statistic," said Keller, who recently relocated from Baltimore, Maryland to Moorestown, New Jersey.

But Keller met another U.S. Marine Corps veteran by chance, who convinced him to try yoga and get involved in occupational therapy. "It saved my life," Keller said.

Keller had something in common with another cohort involved in stressful situations. Studies have shown that retired professional football players and veterans suffer from a wide range of neurological issues. Both groups experience high rates of suicides, and many do not receive the medical attention they need.

(More on this via PBS' FRONTLINE: 87 Deceased NFL Players Test Positive for Brain Disease.)

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Now, however, a program from the University of Rochester Medical Center and the Light It Up Foundation, an outreach organization founded by retired NFL linebacker Keith Mitchell, aims to provide a new type of treatment to these groups. Like Keller, Mitchell credits yoga as a crucial part of his recovery.

The first 50 patients who are selected for the program will receive free medical treatment at the University of Rochester, as well as training in yoga, nutrition, mindfulness and meditation. To make it sustainable in the long-term, the program also has a digital component, courtesy of a San Francisco-based health technology startup called Grand Rounds.

According to Grand Rounds' CEO Owen Tripp, his company will help gather patients’ medical records online and connect those being treated to a multidisciplinary group of specialists at the University of Rochester and elsewhere for ongoing virtual consultations. Grand Rounds will also digitize patients’ care plans once their doctors have agreed on an intervention and course of treatment.

The program kicks off the first week of October, when participants will arrive in New York for a retreat. They will immediately be seen on-site by doctors from the University of Rochester before embarking on several days of guided meditations, yoga training and other health and wellness programs.

Once they return home, their doctors will contact them online via Grand Rounds, and they'll be offered the option to continue their mindfulness training online for eight weeks.

'No Easy Cure'

The program is the brainchild of former NFL player Keith Mitchell.
The program is the brainchild of former NFL player Keith Mitchell. (Keith Mitchell/Amir Magal)

"Many of their problems do not have an easy cure," said Heidi Schwarz, a professor of clinical neurology at the University of Rochester. Schwarz expects some of the participants will be diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and other neurological conditions.

"Medications can be helpful, but a lot of what really makes a difference is lifestyle," she explained.

Schwarz said about half of the participants are veterans, and the other half are retired football players. It may sound like a yogi's dream, but the program is specifically designed for those who have "unmet needs that are crying out for help" and "not just general wellness," she said.

Many football players receive health insurance through the NFL for five years into their retirement. Symptoms of dementia typically do not manifest until much later, although some players may qualify for longer-term health benefits in the wake of a class action lawsuit and settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players.

The experiences of veterans and athletes vary widely. But Schwarz said there may be some benefit to bringing these individuals together. "In both cases, it's an intense experience that puts the brain into warrior mode," she said. "But when they come home, they're not a warrior. That impacts their ability to live outside of that environment."

For this reason, the program is a year long with regular virtual check-ins between the doctors and patients.

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"This isn't just about brain damage; it's about mental health too," Schwarz said.

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