As a single mom and combat-wounded Navy corpsman, Holly Crabtree has too much on her mind to stress about the next time she might black out. Shed rather think about her daughters busy schedule packed with things such as dance classes and Girl Scouts.
But Crabtrees been getting seizures every week or two since she was shot in the head while serving on a Special Operations mission in western Iraq three years ago. The bullet led to two strokes, partial paralysis and epilepsy.
She doesnt feel the seizures coming and she cant prepare for them.
They surprise me, said Crabtree, 33.
Epilepsy is a common side effect veterans experience after suffering head trauma at war. Its debilitating for parents such as Crabtree who worry about passing out in front of their children, and damaging for other veterans who cant drive or hold down jobs because of their occasional seizures.
MORE: For more information, go to epilepsy.va.gov/ The financial issue is big, said Judy Ozuna, a nurse practitioner who spends several days a week caring for epilepsy patients at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Seattle. Families dont know how to make ends meet.
The link between combat-related head trauma and recurring seizures is so well-known that Congress created special epilepsy centers within the VA six years ago. They care for troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, where insurgents wielded homemade explosives as their primary weapons against American military service members.
The centers, including one in Seattle, are leading the VAs treatment for the 66,000 epilepsy patients it sees every year. Crabtree is one of the Seattle patients.
Doctors there helped her bring down the frequency of her seizures from three a week to one or fewer by using medication. Thats important for her because experiencing a seizure can make Crabtree feel like shes regressing amid all the work shes doing to reclaim her health.
If you take two steps forward, then all of a sudden you have to take three steps back, she said.
Medicine works for her, but other options for patients include surgery and procedures that regulate the brains electrical impulses.
The good news is most people will never have a seizure again after the first medicine we give them, said Christopher Ransom, a neurologist at the VA hospital.
An even larger number of veterans are getting care for seizures that are not necessarily related to epilepsy. The Veterans Health Administration estimates about 100,000 former military service members are seeking treatment for seizures every year, up from 70,000 in 2000.
The rising numbers stem from the traumatic brain injuries that an estimated 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experienced during the wars. Survivors of battlefield explosions often had their heads rattled, fell unconscious and sometimes experienced lasting changes to their memory and moods.
In many cases, the explosions would have been fatal if not for advances in-battlefield medical care and body armor.
The body armor has allowed people to survive, but theyre still exposed to a blast injury, said Dr. William Spain, chief of the epilepsy program at the Seattle VA.
Studies show about half of people who suffer penetrating head wounds or severe traumatic brain injuries injuries similar to Crabtrees will develop epilepsy over time.