Army major seeing success with LSU hyperbaric treatment

Serving in Iraq changed the life of a young army major, both in the military, and at home.

Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
Email: | Twitter: @megfarriswwl

NEW ORLEANS -- Serving in Iraq changed the life of a young army major, both in the military, and at home.

He was quickly rising in leadership roles until he suffered from multiple concussions.

The New York Times featured him as the face of soldiers with hidden disabilities. Now he's traveled to New Orleans hoping to heal his war wounds.

In 2006, Ben Richards, 36, left his wife and four children to serve in Iraq.

'I saw incredible bravery, incredible dedication to duty and was incredibly humbled by just how great the American soldier is,' Richards said.

Six months into service, this top West Point graduate, with a very high IQ, soon took command of a Stryker cavalry troop of 100 soldiers and 17 armored vehicles.

They were exposed to dozens of blasts, suicide car bombers, exploding IED's underneath vehicles. There is armature video of them on YouTube. The result: traumatic brain injuries, called TBI's. Even with injuries, that band of brothers loyalty came first.

'I can't recall a single instance of a soldier not wanting to go back out (into battle) because of the cohesion and the need to be a part of that team,' he said.

What brings Richards to New Orleans from his Iowa home is hope for a normal life.

Now on medical retirement from the army, diagnosed with TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he can't sleep because he is always alert, ready to confront danger. He can't sleep in a hotel room because any noise or moving shadow from other guests would cause him to feel in danger as he did sleeping with a gun on an outpost protecting his troops.

He has nightmares of inescapable death, painful post concussion headaches, depression, emotional outbursts, irritable moods and memory problems.

'If my wife and I had a discussion, the next day, may not recall that that discussion happened at all, even with prompting. And it was very frustrating for my wife as I'd tell her I didn't think we had talked about that,' Richards said.

After five years of psychotherapy from excellent VA doctors, he was told nothing more could be done. People with a brain disorder can feel as though they have a problem they should fix, rather than an illness in an organ that needs treatment. He says society would have looked at him differently if his leg had been lost rather than brain function.

'The difficulty of having an injury like traumatic brain injury or the behavior injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, is they're invisible injuries,' Richards said.

Then Richards heard about the hyperbaric oxygen treatments (HBOT) and studies by LSU Health Sciences Emergency Medicine specialist Dr. Paul Harch. He uses specific doses of highly concentrated oxygen to heal brain tissue.

On Sept. 26, a brain scan at West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, showed abnormal blood flow in certain areas. Richards also had poor balance, motor skills, and coordination.

On Nov. 5, after 40 oxygen chamber dives, the difference is noticeable. He says he is sleeping better, working out again, practicing his proficiency in Chinese and is back to reading entire books. Before treatment, he'd lose concentration after a page.

Post treatment brain scans show improvement according to Dr. Harch.

'The areas of his brain scan that are involved with motor and coordination are showing improvement in blood flow and metabolism. And in fact, if we look at the entire brain scan, there is a nearly 20 percent increase in overall blood flow, which is unheard of,' said Dr. Harch who is chief of Hyperbaric Oxygen Medicine at LSUHSC. He has done animal and human studies with Dr. Keith Van Meter, LSUHSC Chief of Emergency Medicine.

But even with all the improvements in his motor skills, his cognition or thinking, and his concentration, there's one area where he desperately wants to improve and he'll know that when he goes home.

'I lost the hero status. My children love me. I love them. We have a good relationship, but you know, it's not what it used to be and I want to be a hero to them again,' said Richards. 'They sacrifice every day for my service.'

Richards could see more improvement with additional treatments, according to Dr. Harch.

In 2013, the U.S. Army will fund hyperbaric oxygen studies at LSU Health Sciences Center on both troops and civilians with brain injuries.

Click here to see the story in the New York Times on Major Richards.


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