New brain wellness program for veterans and first responders coming to Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Studies show of the 400,000 veterans diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, 15 to 20 percent of them live with lingering symptoms.

Those invisible wounds impact every part of their lives and often their families too.

But life-changing help is on the way. Action News Jax Anchor Tenikka Hughes learned about a new brain health center coming to Jacksonville and who joined forces to make it happen.

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Natalie Marcano-Sidberry is a case manager at the Northeast Florida women veterans center.

She said, “I assist female veterans and things such as rental assistance, utility assistance, finding them housing, helping them with funding for repairs, counseling, clothing, food, whatever they need to make themselves better.”

Her work serving others includes 11 years as an Operations Specialist in the U.S. Navy from 1995 to 2006.

Marcano-Sidberry said, “I specialized in the Squiggle and Alpha, which is the harpoon.”

In the late 90s, Marcano-Sidberry was hurt on the job.

She said, “I fell through two decks down the scuttles and injured my head.”

A few years later, she said he suffered another injury on a different ship while in Japan.

Marcano-Sidberry said, “We were just testing out the equipment and I got hurt doing that. So that was the second head injury.”

“For years she dealt with debilitating migraines with no answers about the cause,” Marcano-Sidberry said.

Then, sudden vision problems sent her back to the VA in Jacksonville, that’s when she says an ophthalmologist raised an alarm.

Marcano-Sidberry said, “He looked up in my eye and said, your orbital nerves are extremely swollen. And he recommended, I go to the ER. I went to the ER and four hours later, I was in surgery because I had a condition called I-I-H where the fluid in your brain stays up and doesn’t come back down.”

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She was finally diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, more than a decade after she left the service.

She’s been prescribed 12 different medications.

“There was a lot of things I couldn’t do with my children because the pain was so severe. Sometimes I would forget things. So, I felt like it was messing with my memory.”

Retired four-star Air Force General Robin Rand is the CEO of the Gary Sinise Foundation.

General Rand said, “Remember that a lot of our individuals suffering with TBI are also suffering from post-traumatic stress.”

Rand added, “They’re suffering from insomnia, they’re suffering from, physical pain, headaches. So, there’s a lot of things that caused that the just medication alone, isn’t going to take care of that.”

The organization launched by actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise in 2011, works to help veterans and first responders dealing with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and substance abuse.

General Rand said, “Our goal is to try to make their tomorrow better than they are today.”

This building near the corner of 8th Street West and Boulevard Street in Jacksonville will house The UF Health Brain Wellness Program made possible through a $12.5 million dollar grant from the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network.

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Action News Jax got a look inside at construction underway. It’s one of 20 sites the foundation plans to establish across the country.

The facility will provide more than 12,000 square feet for care and therapies for veterans and first responders. It’s set to open this Fall.

Army Reserve Colonel and Psychiatrist Dr. Michael Sorna is the program’s medical director. He says they will take a holistic approach.

“We do a comprehensive three-day assessment, which includes psychiatry, neurology, neuropsychology, physical therapy, speech, language, and pathology of pharmacy.”

If accepted into the program, the intensive three-week outpatient treatment will include all those same specialties — plus things like yoga, art therapy, acupuncture and even therapy using horses and dogs; all at no cost to the veterans and first responders.

Dr. Sorna said, “We hope that connections are made during that treatment process and that high-intensity format that will help that those veterans get resolution of their symptoms and move forward with their lives.”

Marcano-Sidberry hopes to take part.

She said, “This is absolutely great. Versus just rolling over to your nightstand and taking medicine. Then you’re out of it. You can’t work, you can’t produce any kind of life with your friends and family. So, I think a holistic approach is excellent.”

Dr. Sorna says once veterans finish the three-week outpatient treatment, veteran liaisons with the program will work with local doctors and veteran’s groups to monitor their progress.

They are looking for veterans and first responders to sign up for the treatment in the fall.

To get an evaluation to join the program, you can call or email UF Health. That number is (904) 244-3289. The email address is UFHealthBrainWellnessProgram@jax.ufl.edu.