By: Jessica Rodriguez, Connecticut Dole Caregiver Fellow Alumna
When Jorge and I began dating, there were Post-It notes all over his apartment – on his desk, on the doorway to his bathroom closet and bedroom, on the bathroom mirror, fridge – reminders ranging from due dates for bills, phone numbers, his bank, appointments, school test dates, even when to do the laundry.
It had been a year since he returned from deployment in Iraq. While there, he was exposed to two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that left him with hearing loss, a closed-skull traumatic brain injury, back fractures, post-traumatic stress and other injuries that later included seizures. Those Post-It notes were among the first clues I had that Jorge’s injuries, invisible to the untrained eye, ran deep.
When Jorge came back from Iraq, he returned to his job as a surgical tech at the Groton Submarine Base in Connecticut. A year later, as the impact of his injuries became more apparent, he was honorably discharged from the military and referred to the veterans’ hospital in New Haven.
Over the next several years, Jorge’s cognitive and physical condition continued to deteriorate. I left my nursing career to care for my husband full-time. By early spring of 2015, despite multiple therapies a week, including occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, and counseling, Jorge’s mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing declined further. He became more forgetful and easily agitated.
He started shuffling when he walked and began to lose the ability to speak in full sentences. Often dizzy, Jorge experienced frequent migraines and began having seizures that left him unable to drive. As I watched him continue to decline, I searched for ways to help. Pointing to his deteriorating condition, I challenged the doctors, but my voice was like an echo into the abyss. The head neurologist of the VA hospital told us there was nothing more they could do for him.
The worst moments were those times when I could see he was losing all hope for getting better. As we sat at the table the night before he started the SHARE Military Initiative program at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Jorge said, “I don’t think anything will help me.”
A Nurse Named Sue, SHARE & Shepherd’s Men
After eight years in the VA healthcare system with no improvement in Jorge’s condition, our two- fold miracle came in the shape of a nurse named Sue Lado from the Navy Marine Relief Society. She referred us to the SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center in Atlanta and the Shepherd’s Men, a group of veterans and patriots who help raise money to enable men and women like Jorge to participate in the life-saving program.
Without SHARE, Jorge said he would not be here today. When he said this, it scared me to the core. I realized then, that if we hadn’t gone to SHARE, my husband could have been one of the 22 veterans lost to suicide each day.
Rodriguez family in Atlanta during Jorge’s treatment
The SHARE Military Initiative is a unique program that helps post-9/11 service members suffering from TBI and PTS receive cohesive, tailored, multidisciplinary care and therapies all in one place. Their full-immersion approach has helped nearly 600 veterans develop the tools they need to adapt and cope with their disabilities. SHARE’s success has gained national attention and is now a model for other therapeutic centers across the country.
After the three-month program at SHARE, my husband was walking, talking in full sentences, and able to engage in community activities with better focus and retention. SHARE gave us support, understanding, new treatments, and counseling. All of this bridged the gap between a war zone and a way home. SHARE validated, diagnosed, and treated my husband’s injuries that others dismissed. The people at SHARE inspired Jorge to give 110 percent to the program and succeed in his treatment goals.
SHARE Support of Veterans, their Caregivers, and Families
In most cases, the veteran can attend SHARE independently and live near the Shepherd Center campus for the length of his or her treatment. If a veteran has injuries that require a caregiver, the staff is very helpful and mindful to include the veteran’s caregiver in their care plan. Because of Jorge’s care needs, they asked me to go with him to SHARE.
We were a young family with two little girls, so our journey to SHARE became a family affair. Being a full-time caregiver for my husband and caring for our family while at a veteran-centered program, had its obstacles as I fought with isolation and burnout. SHARE offered counseling for me, enhancing my ability to provide self-care while being a caregiver.
Jorge and I realized early in treatment that his love for his family was a motivator, and SHARE used that to develop tasks and goals centered on his family contributions. Our love and support for Jorge became part of his care, too. SHARE worked with me and provided support for us that made our family feel like we were healing together.
Now, we only use Post-It notes to write “I love you” because at SHARE we learned how to use adaptations like an iPhone with labeled alarms, and our synched digital calendars for reminders and schedules. SHARE’s innovative life coach program helped us integrate new routines and adaptations at home, encouraged Jorge to focus on his goals, and gave him inspiration to try new hobbies. When rough days happen, he now has tools that help him. We are tremendously grateful to Sue, Shepherd’s Men and the medical staff at SHARE for all they have given us. SHARE gave Jorge a life with hope, gave me my husband back, and our little girls their daddy back.
Jessica Rodriguez is a former nurse and now a full-time caregiver and wife living with her veteran husband, Jorge, and their two daughters in Griswold, Conn. Jessica is a 2017 Elizabeth Dole Caregiver Fellow for Connecticut.