UNC-Chapel Hill’s THRIVE program is helping veterans heal

Pexel.com by Sharefaith


By Nina C. Sumner
Guest Correspondent  

The THRIVE (Transforming Health and Resilience in Veterans) Program — a community-based clinical outreach program run out of UNC-Chapel Hill — is providing veterans with holistic healthcare. The program has a particular focus on helping veterans with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and musculoskeletal disorders. It was founded by two Carolina academics, Jason Mihalik and Shawn Kane. They first met while studying TBI as active duty service members at the Matthew Gfeller Center in the College of Arts and Sciences. Since THRIVE first opened in 2022, around two new members have joined every week, although they plan on expanding to accommodate more vets in need. 

THRIVE’s tailored healing recommendations

Before joining the THRIVE Program, each vet submits an application and comes in for an in-person evaluation. At the initial meeting, the veteran sits down with the entire healthcare team and tells them about their past experiences and life history. Participants are seen by around twelve specialists in total, including experts in vestibular physical therapy, neuropsychology, psychiatry, nutrition, athletic training, speech-language pathology, clinical pharmacy, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and family and sports medicine.

Over the next two days, the veteran has separate appointments, all at least an hour long with each clinician. They also discuss the veteran’s personal goals for the program — whether that’s complete recovery or smaller steps toward progress. For example, in some cases, a veteran may be distressed over losing their military dog tags, which are considered a badge of honor and often hold personal meaning. Fortunately, replacement tags can be sent out by the Institute of Heraldry, all veterans have to do is fill in a form and send it by post. Not all veterans may be aware of this simple step, but it can make all the difference in providing peace of mind during the healing journey.

Veterans are then provided with a thorough healthcare report that details treatment recommendations and next steps. This treatment is also coordinated with the participant’s usual healthcare providers. “We are meant to be a support service, not a replacement for their long-term care,” said THRIVE Program case manager Sarah Marshburn. “They look at the recommendations as a roadmap.” Veterans can also choose to participate in a secondary outpatient program. This program consists of personalized care and group therapy, depending on their individual needs. 

Holistic approach to healing

“They just want to be themselves again. They don’t know why what’s happening to them is happening”, explained Retired Master Sergeant Sam Rodriguez, the THRIVE Program’s veteran outreach and program coordinator, on why the Program is so popular among veterans. This is where the program’s holistic approach comes into play. “We look at it more as the whole body,” said Dr. Kane. “If you’ve had a TBI or a concussion or PTSD, and if you have bad back, hip, neck pain, then that’s probably going to impact your brain. So we want to help from an overall brain health standpoint: nutrition, exercise, looking at it from a whole person standpoint. If we just fix your brain, but you still have a bad back, you still won’t be happy and not optimized, and you won’t be able to thrive.”

Making health issues manageable

Matthew Colon is just one example of a veteran the program has successfully helped. He medically retired from the military in 2014 with TBI symptoms. Although he went to a TBI clinic and took medication, Colon found his health difficult to manage. “Do I have TBI today or PTSD, or anger management?” Colon said. “What am I trying to tackle? It gets very confusing.” The THRIVE Program’s holistic method was transformative for Colon, with every appointment taking him closer and closer to true health. “It felt like, ‘we are going to tackle this together, we won’t just send you to a bunch of appointments and hope it works’”, he said. Now, Colon continues to benefit from the program’s support and his health issues aren’t so overwhelming.

Although some veterans arrive at THRIVE feeling skeptical and reluctant, they always leave feeling uplifted and encouraged. “I love how the team up there doesn’t care how many years you did or whether you were a Green Beret,” veteran Justin Ball said. “They are just there to help people.”

Nina C. Sumner is a freelance writer with a background in journalism and a knack for turning complex ideas into enjoyable reads. She’s constantly looking to broaden her reach and contribute to platforms in various niches. When she’s not working on her writing projects, she likes to explore seaside towns and enjoy the company of her family and friends. She can be reached at nina.sumner@mentmail.com.

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