By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
The first IED that hit Hospital Corpsman Jorge Rodriguez in downtown Fallujah knocked him unconscious. “I don’t remember a lot,” he said. “I woke up and there were a bunch of Marines around me asking, ‘Are you ok, doc?’ When I got up I was dizzy and disoriented, but I asked if anyone was sick or injured, and I kept doing my job.”
Less than a week later, Jorge faced another IED as his unit was crossing a bridge. “I looked down, and there was a big hole in the ground, but we kept moving and providing protection. Shrapnel from the IED was lodged in the window next to my head. We got into a small arms fight, and while bullets ricocheted next to me, I took care of two Marines—one hit in the neck and one in the chest.”
During his 2005–2006 deployment to Iraq, Jorge’s convoy got hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. “I took care of multiple casualties. At one point, I took care of 13 or more who got injured in the blast.” Always focused on helping his men survive, Jorge put his own symptoms aside. “First, you take care of your men,” he said, “and then you take care of yourself.”
After his deployment, Jorge worked as a surgical technician at Naval Hospital Groton, Connecticut. “I was the assistant lead petty officer, ordering supplies and instruments and helping surgeons,” he said. “Then, one of my nurses told me I was ordering multiple orders of the same supplies. I was having headaches, not sleeping, my vision was distorted, and I had nausea and hearing loss.”
It took Jorge a while to realize his symptoms were related to his deployment, but he went to the VA for neurological tests and learned that he had a closed skull traumatic brain injury, PTSD, hearing loss, and tinnitus. “The VA never called me or followed up,” he said. “A month after I was diagnosed, I was discharged from the military. Eventually, I began working as a civilian EMT, but I was forgetting the addresses of where we had to pick up or deliver patients. I
was also forgetting the names of patients.”
Seven years after his brain injuries, Jorge’s health continued to decline. He had to cut back his hours on the job from full-time to part-time, and he dropped from four to just one of the college courses he’d been taking to advance his career. “I wasn’t getting any medical treatment,” he said. “I was only followed by a psychiatrist for PTSD.”
Fortunately, during his EMT shifts, Jorge started bringing patients to a sub-acute transitional care unit, and that’s where he met Jessica. “He was charming, funny, and nice,” Jessica said. “He swept me off my feet.” But soon she started seeing unusual behavior. “I noticed sticky notes all over his apartment,” she said. The notes were labels on objects and reminders of things to do.
“When we started dating seriously,” Jessica said, “I noticed he would ask me the same questions over and over again. He would say he couldn’t hear me. When we went on dates, he was hyper-vigilant. When he moved into my apartment, he kept forgetting where his clothes were. He would forget how long he was in the shower or if he’d washed his hair. As time went on I said, ‘I think it’s more than PTSD.’”
The couple had their first child in 2011, but Jorge’s condition continued to deteriorate. “He wasn’t able to remember to eat,” Jessica said. “They had him on medication for insomnia and depression, but he was forgetting to take them. I started advocating for him. I became part of the caregiver program through the VA in 2012. However, Jorge was getting worse. He’d leave for school and then call me from the supermarket, unsure of how he’d gotten there.”
Jessica realized that Jorge had fallen through the cracks of the military health system. “He got an honorable discharge, but never received a medical review board,” she said. “Finally, he was rated with 70% disability for hearing, knee and back degenerative joints, a degenerative disc in his back, and TBI—but they weren’t treating him for poly trauma. The first time we had a poly trauma case manager was 2014.”
Jorge was forgetting words and withdrawing. He suffered migraines and became aggressive. “This was not just PTSD,” Jessica said. Then Jorge had a seizure while driving and crashed into a guardrail, setting his car on fire. And a week later, Jessica learned she was pregnant with their second daughter. The day she came home from the hospital, Jorge had another seizure. “The ER doctor called the VA and said, ‘You need to see him right away,’” Jessica said. “He had a flat affect, developed a tremor and shuffled gait. He would close his eyes and fall backward. They were running all these tests, but the tests didn’t show any changes. I was losing my husband.”
After two more seizures in early 2015, Jorge could barely speak. That’s when Jessica met NMCRS combat casualty assistance (CCA) visiting nurse Sue Lado. Sue recommended a dramatic change in Jorge’s care. “Sue started advocating for Jorge to get out of the VA system and go to the Shepherd Center,” Jessica said. The Shepherd Center is a brain injury and spinal cord rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, that has helped scores of NMCRS clients through its SHARE Military Initiative. “Thanks to Sue’s tenacity, we got him to the Shepherd Center,” Jessica said. “I had to go with him because he couldn’t be left alone. Sue helped us get a hotel room, where I stayed for almost three months. I was there with our four year-old and our nine month-old baby.”
Jorge showed remarkable progress at that facility. “When he went in, they couldn’t even assess his comprehension or speaking ability because it was so low,” Jessica said. “But because of his hard work and dedication, he went from .1% ability to 50%—average ability with speech. When he left, he could speak full sentences, walk, climb stairs, laugh, and engage.”
After 10 months with no seizures, Jorge was able to get his driver’s license back. His doctors think that Jorge has a form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can show up 7 to 10 years after an initial injury. Although he still has memory problems, Jor
ge still undergoes occupational and physical therapy, as well as eye and speech theray. “Now we want fun—we want to give him that back,” Jessica said.
Jorge gives credit to Sue for his recovery. “She is an amazing woman who takes care of people with her heart,” he said. “And she was pushing every single button of every doctor to help me.”
“On one occasion, I was having a very bad day,” Jorge said. “Sue called to check on us, and I told her my wife was ill and I was going to get her medication from the pharmacy, but I couldn’t get out of my driveway because my snow blower broke. She came in a few minutes with her husband and cleaned the whole driveway for me so I could get out. She goes above and beyond her job.” Jessica agrees. “We’re fighting an invisible war. With Sue, I know I have someone to rely on.”
That’s the life-changing help you provide to service members and their families with each gift you give to the Society.