Derek McGinnis was a naval corpsman in Iraq. On a hot fall day in 2004 he was driving across the desert wearing heavy gear. He remembers all the small details.
McGinnis: “Smells, you know you smell the fuels and you smell just dirt. It was the middle of the day; the sun was out bright and everything else.”
He was 27 and on his way to pick up some injured soldiers near Fallujah.
McGinnis: “What happened to me is I was injured by a vehicle born IED, or a suicide driver full of explosives. Basically crashed into our ambulance and blew himself up.”
The explosion jarred McGinnis’ brain and caused one of the most severe of his many wounds, a Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI. Now he’s home with his two young boys and wife Andrea. She says there have been changes in her husband but he still has his warm personality.
“Really nice, down to earth guy. He’ll do anything for anybody, anytime.”
McGinnis is tall and athletic. He usually plays outside with his kids after work and when he puts his oldest son to bed he helps him say his prayers. He recovered from his TBI at the Palo Alto VA with help from neuropsychologist Harriet Zeiner. She says it’s estimated that nationally 12,000 soldiers injured by IEDs have brain injuries.
Zeiner: “10,000 of them have gone home with some effects in their brain and they don’t know they have a head injury.”
But McGinnis is the exception. His doctors knew right away about his severe brain injury. He was basically in a coma the first two months after the explosion. He had a collapsed lung, shrapnel in his eye, was partially paralyzed for month and he lost his leg.
McGinnis: “For me when I had this head injury I didn’t care about the leg I just wanted my brain back.”
McGinnis had to re-learn how to walk and talk. His recovery took years and he says he’s still not back to normal.
“The memory the frustration, like all the sudden I did this just a minute ago and now I’m out here mowing the lawn but I thought I was in the garage.”
McGinnis’ symptoms were typical of a TBI – memory problems, irritability, anxiety and disbelief.
“I continually denied that I had it.”
But, McGinnis says his brain injury has changed the way he lives.
McGinnis:“When you get home get home you put your keys on the wall in the same place so you don’t lose them, okay, so you have to do this and this and this, you’re just used to it. Almost a routine environment is just the best thing for me at this point, and it works, and Andrea helps me along everyday.”
“Every one of these people has to reinvent themselves.”
Harriet Zeiner neuropsychologist at the Palo Alto VA.
Zeiner:“And that’s not the task they thought they would be confronted with when they returned from service.”
Zeiner says most vets with TBI don’t fully recover. But McGinnis is working hard and adapting. Back in his house near Modesto photos of him in triathlons with what he calls his robot leg line a wall. He earned his college degree.
“In my world, though, I have a lot of love and support. So that’s the number one ticket to success if you will.”
But thousands of other vets won’t see that success until they’re first diagnosed with a TBI. That’s why now when Iraq or Afghanistan vets walk into a Northern California VA hospital they’re getting screened for a traumatic brain injury.