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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Injured Navy Veteran Finds Balance at Houston VA Rehab Center

March 1, 2012

Navy Veteran Darion Nelson  & Physical Therapist Sheryl Vandeven 
Navy Veteran Darion Nelson prepares for a session on the EquiTest System® with Physical Therapist Sheryl Vandeven.
PHOTO:  Quentin Melson, Public Affairs Specialist (TCF Intern)

Darion Nelson served as an operational specialist in the U.S. Navy from 2002 until 2011. Like more than 24 million Americans who have served in the military, the Houston native risked life and limb to serve and protect his country.

In 2011 while serving in Kuwait, Nelson suffered a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). As a result of his injuries, he returned stateside to Houston to undergo treatment at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC). Here, he has made steady progress in his recovery through the use of innovative technology in the Rehabilitation Center.

The MEDVAMC recently added an EquiTest System® to its arsenal of rehabilitation equipment. The state-of-the-art apparatus has the look of a colorful phone booth. Inside, there are movable walls, a moveable foot plate, a support harness to prevent the patient from losing balance during testing, and a computer screen to provide visual feedback.

“The machine is great for anybody who has balance or dizziness issues,” said Sheryl Vandeven, a MEDVAMC staff physical therapist. “It can help anyone; from a stroke victim, to a spinal cord injury patient, to a traumatic brain injury survivor like Darion.”

This ‘computerized posturography’ machine measures a patient’s responses to movement of the platform, then provides computer-generated assessments of the patient's postural alignment and stability. Health care providers use this information to diagnose and treat such conditions as head injury, chronic dizziness, heightened risk of falling, and vestibular and central nervous system disorders.

After his first session using the NASA-designed rehabilitation machine, Nelson could already see its potential benefits.

“The machine is great at helping me to find my weaknesses,” said Nelson. “I am confident I will make significant progress within the next month or two.”

In fact, the nine-year Navy Veteran has already made significant progress. Just last year, he was in a vegetative state after being involved in a roll-over vehicle accident. His stepfather recounts the day that his family got the terrible news.

“I was barbecuing in preparation for Easter and two Navy people came to the door,” said Marcus Freeman. “I remember when his mom answered the door, she actually shut the door in their faces because it was so too much to handle. When she let them in, they explained what happened in Kuwait.”

“They said the tire on the driver’s side blew and because the sand was so soft, the truck tumbled,” said Linda Freeman, Nelson’s mother. “Darion was thrown from the vehicle, landed face-first in the sand, and inhaled sand into his lungs.”

The lack of oxygen to Nelson’s brain led to a severe TBI. A TBI happens when something outside the body hits the head with significant force. This could happen when a head hits a windshield during a car accident, a piece of shrapnel enters the brain, or during an explosion of an improvised explosive device. A recent report by the Rand Center of Military Health Policy Research suggests close to a third of returning service members suffer from some degree of TBI.

Recovery from a TBI can take months, if not years. Once Nelson was in the VA’s care, the staff quickly recognized his injuries and took the necessary steps to help him recover.

“We chose the Houston VA for Darion’s treatment because of the people, especially Dr. Sneed,” said Linda Freeman. “She has been very hands-on and she has a great bedside manner. She has been really involved in Darion’s rehabilitation and Veterans are fortunate to have her.”

Stephanie Sneed, M.D., MEDVAMC Polytrauma/TBI medical director, actually sees it the other way around. She is thankful for having the opportunity to help Darion and his family.

“Veterans have earned and deserve the best care anywhere,” said Sneed. “As a physician, I feel privileged to work at the VA and take care of patients like Darion. He tries his best and he is open to learning new ideas. In TBI, family support is critical and Darion’s family has been very supportive from the beginning.”

“Darion shows improvement every day,” said Marcus Freeman. “He has improved to the point where he is actually cooking breakfast. I monitor him, but he breaks the eggs, cooks the bacon, and toasts the bread. I don’t know where he’ll be in his recovery within the next couple of months exactly, but I’m sure he’ll be better thanks to the VA.”

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Awarded re-designation for Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Services in 2008, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center serves as the primary health care provider for more than 130,000 Veterans in southeast Texas and provides some of the most complex care within the VA Health Care System. The DeBakey VA employs nearly 3,600 staff and is one of 49 institutions within the prestigious Texas Medical Center, one of the largest health and research centers in the world. The DeBakey VA is home to a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic; Network Polytrauma Center; award-winning Cardiac and General Surgery Program; Liver Transplant Center; Epilepsy and Cancer Centers of Excellence; Substance Abuse Disorder Quality Enhancement Research Initiative; Health Services Research & Development Center of Excellence; Rehabilitation Research of Excellence focusing on mild to moderate traumatic brain injury; Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center; $26.8 million Research and Development Program; and Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education, and Clinical Center. The hospital offers sophisticated, cutting-edge technology such as PET/CT imaging, the Evident™ microwave ablation system, a CyberKnife®, a Varian Trilogy linear accelerator, a Philips Wide Bore Computed Tomography Simulator, the OR•Control System, the Abiomed Impella 2.5 catheter-based heart pump, and the Sapien heart valve. For more than 50 years, the DeBakey VA has served as the primary teaching facility for our major affiliate, Baylor College of Medicine and operates the largest VA residency program in the nation with 270 residents. Each academic year, more than 2,179 students are trained through 194 affiliation agreements with institutions of higher learning. Including the outpatient clinics in Beaumont, Conroe, Galveston, Houston, Lufkin, Richmond, and Texas City, MEDVAMC outpatient clinics logged almost 1.3 million outpatient visits in fiscal year 2011. For the latest news releases and information about the MEDVAMC, visit