Women veterans told their brain injuries were just stress

Navy veteran Bridget Dolan said the misdiagnosing of traumatic brain injuries is common, in particular for women. (Photos by Photos by Hannah La Folette Ryan/VA Medical Center)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Navy veteran Bridget Dolan reached her breaking point when yet another doctor asked how her personal life was going after she ended up in the emergency room for vertigo and dizziness, all while dealing with a headache that never went away.

“I just laughed and said I couldn’t believe I was going through this again,” she said.

Dolan said she felt like she was walking around with a constant hangover after getting multiple concussions both during and before her Navy training. But none of the doctors over the last 22 years had picked up on the fact that she had suffered a traumatic brain injury until a doctor in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center told her to walk in a straight line with her eyes closed and she couldn’t.

“It was just a simple test that cost the VA no money,” she said. “That’s when I finally had somebody believe me.”

Dolan, along with other female veterans who had suffered from traumatic brain injuries  (TBIs) while in the service, spoke about their experiences at the VA’s 23rd Street facility on Monday, April 16 to raise for the condition because it can be difficult to diagnose, but the veterans were especially trying to raise awareness for the condition in women because their concerns aren’t always regarded seriously by doctors.

Navy veteran Amanda Burrill

“It’s not just about awareness,” Navy veteran Amanda Burrill said. “It’s about treating women like they can be injured too and are not just emotional and hysterical, and feeling like no one is listening.”

Dolan said that multiple doctors had tried to dismiss her complaints as depression and anxiety when she had complaints of physical symptoms.

Dolan and Burrill both said that doctors had previously diagnosed them with fibromyalgia, which Dr. Malou Cristobal said is a common misdiagnosis for women with TBIs and symptoms for which can include fatigue, memory problems and mood issues.

Cristobal, who works with the veterans in vestibular rehab to improve their balance and reduce problems related to dizziness, said that the VA wants to raise awareness about the issue, especially because she said women are more prone TBIs since the nerves in their head are thinner. A study published in a medical journal last year suggests that women have smaller, more breakable nerve fibers in their brains compared to men, making women more susceptible to concussions.

“But doctors are also often missing the real diagnosis,” Cristobal added. “It’s important that we educate people on these issues around that. We want to spend time with them and don’t want to put them in a box.”

Army veteran Elana Duffy had similar experiences with doctors that Dolan had before she confirmed that she had a traumatic brain injury.

“What I found especially during the diagnosis is that I would get told because you’re a woman, the whole hysteria thing,” she said. “They would say, ‘It must be your ovaries.’”

Duffy was injured while working with military intelligence in Iraq in 2005 and her convoy hit an explosive device, which threw her head into a metal plate behind her. She said that even when the military was processing the paperwork to award her the Purple Heart, the army wouldn’t admit that she had been injured in a blast.

Army veteran Elana Duffy (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

“One commander (…) wouldn’t admit I got injured because he said, ‘A woman getting hurt under my command looks infinitely worse,’” she said.

Duffy said that sexism from doctors also came when she wasn’t expecting it, even since her diagnosis.

“In the last couple of months, I’ve had neck problems from all of this and I had a doctor tell me, ‘Don’t you have a lot going on right now? Maybe you’re just agitated. Maybe there’s domestic trouble that’s stressing you out,’” she said. “Things like that don’t even always occur to me at the time, but I was talking to another friend who is a Marine Corps vet who was shocked when I told him about this and he said, ‘They would never say that to me.’”

George Xenakis, the clinical coordinator of rehab at the VA, said at the event that TBIs are a “silent epidemic” and are often underdiagnosed in both male and female patients but are a very common injury for veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“One of the reasons for higher incidences of TBIs now (compared to previous conflicts) is the better body armor so veterans are actually surviving blasts that would have killed them in the past, but the armor doesn’t protect against TBI,” he said.

Dolan and Duffy also both said TBIs weren’t really being studied when they got their injuries, which likely factored into how they were diagnosed. Dolan’s initial injury in 1995 when she was 13 resulted in unconsciousness and immediate seizures but she said that she was sent home from the hospital the next day and doctors never connected her severe headaches to a TBIs. Duffy said that at the time of her injury in 2005 when she was in the army, doctors were studying the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on returning service members more than TBIs.

The three vets who spoke at the event said that recovery has been difficult because they’ve had to adapt to changes resulting from their injury.

“It’s frustrating to go from having a background in engineering and having a near-photographic memory to not being able to remember people’s names, but I’m learning to adapt,” Duffy said. “I’m getting an MBA because I started a company to connect people with resources that someone like me would need.”

Dolan said that she initially joined the military from “hitting this rock bottom place” that she feels was likely prompted by her initial injury as a teenager because of her frustration with the constant headaches it caused, which then resulted in depression and suicidal tendencies. Although she initially had trouble with doctors at the VA who misdiagnosed her, she said that the recent therapy seems to be helping.

“Occupational therapy has really helped with the cognitive stuff,” she said. “Physical therapy is really exhausting. I haven’t been as diligent about that but I know it takes time and repetition.”

Olympic fencer Monica Aksamit was also at the event on Monday to support the veterans who shared their stories. Aksamit is not a patient at the VA or a veteran but said that she was at the event to show her support for veterans and to raise awareness for women’s issues.

“Even in athletics, there’s a difference in how men and women are treated,” she said. “There’s still discrimination so we’re still fighting that fight.”

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