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Helping VA rehabilitate those with multiple wounds of war

Micaela Cornis-Pop oversees more than 110 rehabilitation facilities around the country, helping the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) stay at the forefront of developments in treating traumatic brain injury and other medical injuries and issues facing injured veterans and military service members.

With the increase in battlefield survival rates of military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, service members live with more complex casualties, which led the VA to coin the word “polytrauma” to describe multiple injuries to one person, the most prevalent of which is traumatic brain injury, but also can include post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple amputations, burns, auditory and visual impairments and mental health issues.

In 2005, Cornis-Pop helped conceive, develop and implement the VA’s Polytrauma System of Care, an integrated network of facilities that provide specialized programs to help wounded men and women recover, and move from acute care to outpatient rehabilitation and reintegration into the community. She now leads and manages the system, developing policies and procedures and monitoring their implementation.

“We have a direct impact on how health care is delivered and is impacting veterans and service members, and that is tremendously gratifying,” said Cornis-Pop, national program manager of the Polytrauma System of Care at the Veterans Health Administration, Rehabilitation and Prosthetic Services, at the VA.

She also is responsible for providing education opportunities for VA health care providers who treat traumatic brain injuries. And the system works with another 39 VA locations that provide some, but not all elements of comprehensive polytrauma rehabilitation care, to define the care those facilities can provide and help make the decision when to refer patients to another level of care.

Micaela Cornis-Pop of the Deparment of Veterans Affairs. (Richmond VA Medical Center)

In addition, Cornis-Pop was the lead author and editor of a “massive project” to publish a 166-page book that came out in April 2010, which serves as an accredited independent study course on traumatic brain injury for members of VA health care teams around the country, said Joel Scholten, director of Special Projects at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Program Office (PM&R), which manages the Polytrauma System of Care. Nearly 12,000 clinicians have completed the course between April 2010 and July 2012, using either the book or a Web version of it.

Cornis-Pop “has the innate ability to pull people together and get focused on a task and think creatively, and, most amazingly, develop an end product that is useful and veteran-centric,” Scholten said. “She develops programs and projects that have been sustained because they are clinically relevant. It’s not just policy that is developed and sits there.”

Dr. David Cifu, national director of the PM&R office, not only relies on Cornis-Pop to coordinate the care programs around the country but also to respond to outside requests for information, including from Congress. “She’s the person who makes it all happen,” he said. “She doesn’t care about getting credit. She just gets things done. That’s gold.”

When Cornis-Pop was in school in her native Romania, her interests were split between mathematics and teaching English or linguistics. She chose to go into linguistics and studied the deep structure of languages and how they are represented in the brain, which was “a nice marriage between my more scientific brain and my teaching brain,” she said.

She started out practicing speech pathology but gravitated toward medical speech pathology while working at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical College Medical Center, which has a strong rehabilitation and traumatic brain injury program.

Working now in program development, Cornis-Pop said she has the opportunity, along with others specializing in her area, to move the field of rehabilitation, and even brain science, forward because the focus on healing and rehabilitating the brain contributes to better understanding of the brain and injury to it.

She added that operating within the federal government provides tremendous advantages. VA providers can do what they feel is right for the patient rather than having to justify their work to third-party payers or face other limits to how they practice. “We hear this over and over from practitioners in the field,” she said.

The federal system also provides a responsive nationwide network that understands the needs of veterans and can implement feedback from all around the country, Cornis-Pop said. And the national infrastructure makes changes possible in a rather brief period of time. “This supportive network makes the spread of new information so much easier than it would be in a fragmented system.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Go to to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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