Rubber Soul: Iraq Veteran Turns to Running to Heal Brain Injury

Rubber Soul: Iraq Veteran Turns to Running to Heal Brain Injury

Ever since Eric Keller returned from serving in Iraq, he has faced one challenge after another.

One doctor told him he had a stroke and that he might be wheelchair-bound. Then, later, doctors told him that he suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI) in Iraq. Then, he had a seizure, and he accumulated thousands in medical bills and wound up with $10,000 in credit card debt because of medical bills, and he also got $3,000 behind in payments on his home.

After Keller served in Iraq from February 2004 to December 2004 in the First Infantry Division, the right side of his body stopped working in October 2007.

Talking about his right side, he said, “It just went dead.”

Since war began in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has seen an increase in traumatic injuries. The Department of Defense says that about 147,000 service members were diagnosed with TBI over the last eight years.

Keller, 26, lives in the Akron area of northeast Ohio, and works as an administrative/clerical assistant doing typing and transcription for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

“I was at work and it started in my fingers,” he said. Then the numbness spread from his fingers to his arm and shoulder, and the next thing Keller knew, he was in the hospital.

After Keller spent five or six days in the hospital, doctors told him he had a stroke and that he wouldn’t be able to walk or smile. When Keller asked doctors what the worst-case scenario would be, they told him that he could be wheelchair-bound.

“So that really motivated me to say, ‘Fuck it,'” he said, and motivated him to run in a marathon.

After all, in Iraq, he could handle carrying a lot of weight on his back, so how hard could a marathon be? Never mind that his doctors told him to rest.

Keller got the idea to run a marathon after he read the December 2008 issue of Runner’s World magazine, which featured Navy Seal David Goggins on the cover. He had run a 100-mile marathon without training, and that got Keller thinking that maybe he could run a marathon, too.

So, he tried to get back into shape. At first, though, he couldn’t run a third of a mile. “I just pushed myself,” Keller said.

Then he ran a marathon in Cleveland in May 2009. He planned to jog and walk in the marathon, which was 26.2 miles.

“I ran the first 14 miles nonstop and I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I kept pushing myself.”

When he crossed over the halfway point, he got bad cramps, so he started walking and eventually walking hurt, too. He also developed blisters on his feet.

Although he said he destroyed his body, he was thankful that he did the marathon in six hours, 40 minutes, 36 seconds; he described running and finishing the marathon as “quite exhilarating.”

When he got home after the race, he took a hot shower and slept for the next 24 hours. When he woke up, he said, “It hurt like hell,” but he felt a sense of accomplishment, despite that he had blisters on both feet.

He got second to last place in the race and collapsed at the end of the race. “I felt like crap,” he said.

On the other hand, he said, “Hearing that I might never walk again motivated me.” So, when he described his finishing the marathon, he said, “There’s a magical feeling, like I conquered death.”

After the marathon, he started running more regularly and was hoping to participate in a marathon in Akron, but he wound up not participating because, three weeks before the race when he was at home, he had a seizure in September 2009. And after the seizure, doctors told him he wasn’t allowed to run in the marathon.

He saw many doctors – neurologists, psychologists, hematologists – and had many psychological and neurological tests and treatments. The final determination? In the end of November 2009, he was told that he had TBI from Iraq, in addition to injuring his knees and back in Iraq. Doctors concluded that he hadn’t had a stroke, but rather had a hemiplegic episode, an unusual migraine syndrome characterized by recurrent transient attacks of weakness or paralysis as part of the migraine. Basically, he suffered brain damage after being exposed to explosions in Iraq, and now parts of his body sometimes go numb and he has some permanent memory loss, but he can regain use of his body; it just comes and goes, though, he said.

After he suffered from what originally was thought to be stroke, “weird stuff started happening,” Keller said. He felt numb and had muscle spasms and his brain would misfire as some of his muscles would go crazy. The brain’s misfiring caused seizures sometimes, and Keller said it’s like having intractable headaches because of the TBI.

Although Keller got permission this January that he could start running again, doctors don’t recommend it. Still, he said he plans to start weight training slowly and hopes to finish a 100-mile marathon by the end of this year. After all, he said completing the other marathon made him feel “great” and like he had accomplished something.

Before he started running, Keller said he was “deeply depressed” and that life came to a halt. But after he started running, he stopped taking his antidepressants and anti-seizure medicine to control spasms. “And I felt amazing,” he said, although his knees still hurt.

After his seizure, he was advised to do no driving, running or physical activity. He hasn’t run in four months.

Now, he’s taking more medicine – anti-anger medicine, antidepressant, arthritis medicine, anti-seizure medicine. “I feel like shit” on all of the medicine, he said, laughing.

He can’t drive to the gym where he has a membership, and with icy sidewalks, it’s too dangerous to run outside in January weather in Ohio, he said.

Keller said he’s tried to talk to a neurologist and another doctor, telling them that he didn’t have as many mental and physical problems when he was running, but the doctors told him that there likely wasn’t a relationship between his exercise and his feeling better.

Just recently, though, the VA published a report on the positive effects of exercise on mental health. The two studies mentioned in the report both appear in the Journal Archives of Neurology.

The two new studies have shown that doing moderate physical activity during midlife may guard against mild mental impairment. Mild cognitive impairment is a transition stage in cognitive decline that occurs with age and dementia, and it may affect regular thinking, learning, reasoning and judgment.

In the first study, scientists from the University of Washington School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle, looked at 33 adults (17 women), aged 70, with mild cognitive impairment. For the study, the participants were divided into two groups: 23 did high-intensity aerobics for 45 to 60 minutes a day, while the remaining ten did simple stretching exercises. Participants were followed for six months, when researchers kept track of fitness, body fat, metabolic markers and cognitive functions.

The data indicated that those who performed the high-intensity exercise showed improved cognitive function compared to the participants who did only stretching. The study concluded that exercise not only offers many physical benefits, but also provides a cognitive benefit for some adults with mild cognitive impairment.

A second study involving 1,324 dementia-free individuals found that moderate physical activity not only improved mild cognitive decline but also may prevent the condition. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, studied the exercise habits of participants whose average age was 80 years old. After the study period, 198 participants developed mild cognitive impairment while 1,126 had normal mental health behavior. The study showed that those who did mild physical activity such as swimming, brisk walking, yoga or aerobics during midlife had a 39 percent reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment. And those who did moderate physical activity in their later lives were 32 percent less likely to develop the condition.

Back in Ohio, Keller lives with his wife Tina, 28, and two kids, two-year-old Elizabeth Grace and one-year-old James Matthew, and medical bills have been a big setback for them. Keller said they’ve filed for bankruptcy, and that he filed for disability for a stroke in October 2007, but that he got a denial later in May 2008. Meanwhile, he has racked up $10,000 in credit card debt to pay medical bills. He appealed the denial letter and then got a final denial in November 2009. In the meantime, Keller struggles to make minimum payments on credit card bills. If he keeps fighting the denial, he may have to go to court.

Medical bills from his seizure raised medical costs, and Keller is waiting to get approved for disability. Meanwhile, he and his family got three months, or $3,000 behind on their mortgage. Keller said he has to decide whether to pay doctors or pay for his mortgage.

“I don’t have any money or luxuries,” he said.

Keller filed a separate disability application for his TBI in November 2009. He said he was told that disability was denied for the stroke because it didn’t happen with 12 months of his being discharged. It was a few months beyond 12 months – “like 15 to 17 months” – after his discharge from Iraq, he said. “But now I have a diagnosis of TBI, so that is what I applied for” in early November 2009, Keller said.

Keller also applied for financial aid through the Veterans Service Commission in October 2009. He said he talked to representatives in November 2009 and that they said they couldn’t find any documents on him ever being there and that they would call him back, but they still haven’t called, he said. The organization was established to help veterans and their family members who have encountered unexpected hardship as a result of sickness, injury, disease or lack of employment.

Keller’s wife stays at home to take care of their children and to help drive Keller around town. Keller also said he’s had to sell just about everything he owns – except clothes and a TV – to survive.

Keller said VA doctors determined that his medical issues were all service-connected, but he said he later was told that his paperwork at the Veterans Service Commission was lost. “I’ve gotten wonderful care from the VA, but dealing with this disability thing is really discouraging,” Keller said. “I’m still waiting for that.”

Keller’s running shoes are more than a year old and have run 400-something miles, and Keller has worn through the rubber soles, but doesn’t have the money to replace them. “It’s just like challenge after challenge,” he said. “And then I’ll go home and we’ll get another letter saying that we’re three months behind our mortgage and that they’re going to foreclose on us, but it’s the only house that we got, so we just fight and try to pay the mortgage, and that’s all that we can do.”