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How One Veteran Learned She Had a TBI and Started Treatment

Learn how U.S. Navy Veteran Elana Duffy finally learned she had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and started treatment.

Preeti Parikh, MD
Written by Venus Sánchez | Reviewed by Preeti Parikh, MD
Published on February 8, 2021

Elana Duffy, a former U.S. Navy sergeant, was hit by a roadside bomb in early November of 2005. Immediately, she started experiencing harrowing symptoms like loss of balance, memory and severe migraines. This persisted even when she got back from deployment, which led her to seek help.

Journey to Recovery

At first, even the mere mention of her symptoms to anyone would prompt a referral to a mental health specialist. They would prescribe medication, which left Duffy in a state of uncertainty. She didn’t believe her symptoms were related to a mental health issue. “I wouldn’t argue with them that maybe something else was going on,” she says.

Every year, Duffy was supposed to check in for a post-deployment health reassessment, but she refused to report any of her symptoms. A year later, when the second one rolled around, she got a call from her supervisor who told her she needed to come in.

Sitting in front of a physician’s assistant, Duffy pleaded her case. She expressed her frustration of not getting the answers she needed and always being misdiagnosed. Then, she listed every symptom she had experienced over the last two years, which she said were getting progressively worse.

“I don’t want to see any more doctors. Don’t send me to mental health,” she said to the physician’s assistant.

Getting Treatment for a TBI

After explaining what her problems were, the physician’s assistant mentioned there was a German neurologist who was studying concussive blasts and how they related to brain injuries. Every symptom on the list for concussive blast traumatic brain injuries matched what Duffy had told him.

Duffy met with this neurologist. One MRI later, and she had her answer. She had a mass in her brain that required surgery. The relief Duffy felt when she finally got her diagnosis was massive.

“There was a physical thing wrong, and I wasn’t going crazy. I wasn’t losing my grasp of reality. I could become okay again. I could get better,” says Duffy.

If you are dealing with any type of invisible illness, Duffy encourages you to get help and self-advocate. Finding a doctor who understands what you’re experiencing can help you get the treatment you need.

“What I wish people knew about brain injuries and other invisible wounds—whether they’re from combat or something else—is it’s real, and it affects your life,” she adds.

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