In 2009, Colonel George Hanhauser was hospitalized because he heard music at church. By that point, he knew that live music triggered his headaches, and he just thought it was something he had to learn to live with. His headaches were debilitating, and often progressed into migraines which came with nausea, vomiting, dry heaving, and significant speech and vision issues. These headaches were a result of one of the many brain injuries he sustained while serving his country. It put quite the damper on the special event happening in church that day: his daughter was receiving her first communion.
From a young age, George had a strong calling to serve his country. Some of that was in his genes. His grandfather was something of a badass in the military. In World War II, his grandfather was a first sergeant of an armored flamethrower battalion (that’s military speak for tanks equipped with flamethrowers). It’s hard to not be wooed by the idea of leading a troop of flame throwing tanks. And it was no surprise that George answered the call. He started off by attending the Military Academy at West Point and soon after began a military career of more than 30 years of commissioned service. Then, one tour in Iraq changed everything.
It was a 2006-2007 tour when his life was transformed. During the tour he experienced 7 IED attacks, and the effects started to wear on him. Despite the effects, he still wasn’t receptive to treatment. George admits that he knew “way too little” about brain injuries around this time. One of his team leaders sustained “a few” brain injuries, and their surgeon wanted to send him home. They looked at him, saw that he was conscious, and couldn’t understand why. “We really didn’t understand. We genuinely thought [that] you have a concussion, you’ll be fine in a couple of days, and no long-term effects.”
When it came to his own injuries, the medical team was getting close to sending him home. In an effort to subvert being relieved, George made what he now calls the “not good” decision to stop going to the aid station. His logic? They can’t send him home if they don’t know about the injury. He laughs as he thinks about it now because he realizes how ridiculous that plan was.
But in the moment, he had his company and his position in it at the forefront of his mind. George was a commander, and he didn’t want to be shipped home and leave his company in Iraq without him. He calls combat “the ultimate team sport” but he makes sure to caveat that it’s not fun and games, but requires functioning as a team. And the last thing he wanted to do as a good team member and leader was to let anyone down.
Eventually, George was sent home under the guise of R&R (rest and relaxation). He bounced around a range of care facilities upon his return. First he was sent to Walter Reed in February 2007 and then to outpatient treatment at the Philadelphia VA, where he experienced a number of treatments.
However, the effects of his brain injury continued to impact his life. Some of the symptoms he experienced as a result of his injury included vision issues, stuttering (which was a departure for someone who previously had enjoyed public speaking), mental fatigue, short-term memory loss, and balance issues. The headaches were particularly significant, though. Even before he returned home in late 2006, he experienced what he called bad headaches. The pain he experienced was off the pain charts he was presented with that are typically used to gauge the severity of pain. These continued for years and he learned some of his triggers for these bad headaches and migraines. Around this time was when the hospitalization after his daughter’s first communion occurred.
It would still be more than a year before George found himself working his way through the intake process at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) in 2011. That was a turning point. It’s hard to explain what a great experience it was, he says. “You didn’t have to worry about anything,” he recalls. From getting previous military medical reports to having a room to stay in during the process, everything was taken care of for him. Suddenly, it looked like there was hope for his symptoms.
One thing that struck him about his experience at NICoE was the coordinated effort amongst clinicians. “You have all these providers who are working together as a team,” he says. While other treatments and diagnostics he experienced were somewhat siloed, at NICoE all the clinicians sit together and explain things from their perspective. He remembers them sitting together and figuring out how a symptom in one place may interact and be impacted by bloodwork, which may have a role in a medication he’s taking. He calls the integrated approach “a godsend.”
At NICoE, George was completely reevaluated “from stem to stern.” He’d been through a host of other facilities throughout his journey but NICoE blew him away. “The granularity that they can see and technology they can use is just incredible,” he recalls. He also recalls how they told him that he hadn’t experienced the previously diagnosed 9 brain injuries. He had 12. That’s a big difference.
After the intake and evaluation process, George was thrusted into the treatments, which had a profound effect on him. Working with the dieticians, for example, was a big learning experience. He describes himself as photophobic (which is likely a residual effect of the brain injuries). He got nauseous easily, and didn’t like to eat during the day as a result. He never considered how his dietary habits might be affecting his other symptoms and overall daily experience. This was the first time that someone examined that. He learned how his dietary habits such as skipping lunch were “setting his whole body up for failure later in the afternoon.” The dieticians didn’t just identify issues with his diet. They developed solutions, and a treatment plan that he could take with him anywhere he went. He still relies on those solutions and that treatment plan nearly a decade later.
Another treatment that had a big impact on George was acupuncture. He was skeptical and hesitant at the beginning, especially because of the look of the treatment. He and the other patients were fitted with what he can only describe as “gold studded earrings.” The objects go into different areas of the ear to activate the ear’s pressure points. They help to provide headache relief and extend the duration of treatment after an acupuncture session. But the guys weren’t having it, walking around with these “earrings” in their ears. Ask him about it today though and he’ll tell you “it really works!” and he’s a huge advocate for the treatment because of how effective it has been for him.
Botox was another treatment that gave him some trepidation. He admits that when they first told him about the Botox treatment at NICoE, his first thought was “Oh my god, I’m a 45-year old woman.” But he still gets Botox treatments today (which, for the record, are administered to different areas than cosmetic Botox and require more units). He says that Botox is “extremely effective” in helping relieve and ward off his tension headaches.
One question he’s learned how to ask is “what would you be willing to do to feel better?” Pain management is a huge factor in George’s recovery. He estimates that it drives around 80% of the residual issues from his brain injuries. And there’s no “magic wand, magic pill, [or] one thing that is going to take care of pain management for you. [It’s] a series [of things].”
Even though he completed treatment at NICoE, George later found his way to one of our Intrepid Spirit Centers which act as a network of satellites to NICoE but focus less on diagnosis and more on long term treatment plans. After graduating from the Army War College in 2012, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, home to one of our first Intrepid Spirit Centers. The neurology department has what George calls a “close, seamless entanglement” with Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center. He still visits the Intrepid Spirit Center at Fort Bragg and receives his Botox treatments there, among other continued treatments.
Each year, thousands of service members like George walk through the doors of NICoE and the network of Intrepid Spirit Centers around the country with stories just like his. They seek answers and solutions to the issues they endure following a brain injury or injuries. And just like George, they’re met with a team of clinicians who listen, work together, and find solutions that transform their quality of life and provide new hope for so many who had lost theirs along the way.
Posted on March 26 2021 in Blog