When we last spoke with Army Capt. Patrick Horan, he was moving into a newly renovated home in McLean in 2012, five years after being shot in the head by a sniper during a mission in Iraq. His recovery from traumatic brain injury, including having to learn to walk and talk again with part of his brain removed, involved traveling to Chicago, Los Angeles, Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Michigan, New York, Alabama and Charlottesville.
Now one of the highlights of his rehabilitation is a day in Vienna at the Stroke Comeback Center, one of only six clinics in the country dedicated to helping stroke and traumatic brain injury victims reconnect their brains with their bodies, and their lives. Today is Brain Injury Awareness Day, which made this a good time to tour the spacious, well-equipped non-profit clinic on Park Street with founder and executive director Darlene Williamson and catch up with the Horans. Patty Horan was named last week as a Fellow of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation for military caregivers, and Patrick Horan has gotten to hang out with Bruce Springsteen. So those are both pretty cool.
Williamson, who was just elected president of the National Aphasia Association, is a speech language pathologist who began working in hospitals with people who had trouble speaking after strokes or head injuries. Then she taught at George Washington University and discovered that group therapy was much more helpful to the recovery process. “The groups are more demanding, and more rewarding,” she said, and the participants sit with others who have “walked a mile in your moccasins.”
She later went into private practice, and eventually devised a business model for operating an aphasia clinic. (Aphasia is the term for difficulty speaking, reading, writing or listening caused by brain injury.) She opened first in Oakton in 2005, “doing everything in groups, being there for people in the long haul, turning no one away for inability to pay,” Williamson said. Within a couple of years, she had 65 “members — they’re done with being patients,” she said, and in 2009 she moved into a renovated strip mall next to Johnny’s Pizza in downtown Vienna. She now has 90 members a week who choose from 38 different classes, including some with a physical component, since there’s a dance studio, the Cuppett Performing Arts Center, in the same strip mall. There are also classes in one-handed cooking, for those who have lost functioning on one side of the body, and in technology, both learning the latest and using it for rehabilitation.
One of the best tech tools is an iPad program called “Constant Therapy,” which enables users to work on reading and speaking both in and outside of clinical settings. “It is the best tool out there,” Williamson said. “They have put an enormous amount of time and energy into building therapy for folks who have aphasia.” Elyse Familant, a spokeswoman for Constant Therapy, said wounded soldiers are able to use it when they live great distances from VA hospitals and continue therapy between visits. Horan participated in a promotional video for the program.
Though wounded soldiers make up only about 10 percent of the Stroke Comeback Center’s members, Williamson said about 40 percent are former military members who have suffered strokes or brain injury. She said many insurance plans will stop paying for therapy after a “plateau” of achievement has been reached, but Williamson and others — including the Horans — believe that gains can continue to be made with the brain for many years and many plateaus.
Another believer in the theory of continuing brain improvement is Paul Berger, a Falls Church man who has become an outspoken advocate for stroke survivors. Patty Horan said she happened to discover one of Berger’s books on tape, “How to Conquer the World With One Hand…and an Attitude,” and the couple listened to it in the car. Then she tracked down Berger, and he recommended the Stroke Comeback Center.
“This place is honestly one of the coolest places I go,” Patrick Horan said Tuesday. He said when he arrives on a typical morning, the clinic is filled with other brain injury survivors, each with different symptoms. “Different strokes for different folks,” Williamson cracked. Horan said his groups work on reading, playing cards, making conversation, cooking, and language skills. “It’s just fun,” though at the end of the day, he is exhausted.
Horan’s speech skills have improved greatly in the two years since I met him, inside the house which had just been renovated by Rebuilding Together and Sears employees. Other than being unable to retrieve a couple of words he doesn’t use often, you wouldn’t know a bullet had pierced his skull and it took him a year just to say 50 words. At one point, we got to talking about Bruce Springsteen, whom Horan listened to during his time in the hospital. He then brought out a prized possession, a photo of himself with Springsteen at the “Stand Up for Heroes” benefit held at the Beacon Theater in New York City in November 2012. Horan had the same neurosurgeon as ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff, who organizes the annual benefit. That’s a nice photo.
And of course Patty Horan was there too. She has been everywhere with him since his wounding in 2007, and now she has been selected as a Fellow of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation for military caregivers. She has fought for her husband from day one, but she reminded me that she is one of many who are doing the same thing, quietly, across the country.
“For me,” Patty Horan said, “I hope with the Elizabeth Dole Fellowship I can shed some light on our military caregivers. They are bearing the brunt of the long-term consequences of these wars. Many are isolated, alone and need help and support from their local communities and this nation. We are the reason many of our wounded warriors are thriving.” In addition to caring for her husband, she is working with the 100 Entrepreneurs Project, bringing guest speakers to the hospitals at Fort Belvoir and Walter Reed to encourage wounded veterans to start their own businesses. She also, somehow, earned a master’s degree in publishing last summer from George Washington.
And the Stroke Comeback Center isn’t Patrick Horan’s only stop on the rehabilitation carousel. He also goes to Learning Rx in Tysons Corner for brain therapy, to the Brain Wellness Center in Bethesda for a research study, and to Walter Reed for occupational therapy for his right arm and more math and reading study. Horan, who is the son of former Fairfax County judge Richard Horan and nephew of former Fairfax County prosecutor Bob Horan, has also started adaptive rowing (!!) and hopes to paddle down the Potomac this summer, and he also participates in the Army Ten-Miler on a recumbent bike.
Whew. I got tired just typing all that. But it’s Brain Injury Awareness Day, so now you know just a part of the efforts being made to study and overcome traumatic brain injury. Williamson said, “It’s our mission and our goal to re-engage people back in the community.” The Horans are clearly on their way.
And here’s a story that the PBS show “My Generation” did on the Stroke Comeback Center in 2011: