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Service animal training program helps heal veterans

Training service dog on campus

Opening doors, turning on lights, helping remove socks and shoes – for the talented service dogs in training from the non-profit Warrior Canine Connection (WCC), these skills are just the tip of the 80-command iceberg that dogs master to assist the visible and invisible injuries of their veteran partners.

Service dog training
Poyner, a golden retriever undergoing training at CU Anschutz, practices flicking on and off a light switch.

For veterans dealing with the symptoms of traumatic brain injuries (TBI), the invisible wounds of war can worsen feelings of isolation and being disconnected from friends and family. Here at CU Anschutz, the Marcus Institute for Brain Health (MIBH) on campus has a new partnership with the WCC, a national nonprofit where veterans training service dogs for other veterans aims to heal those wounds.

Training dogs, training people

Currently, five special dogs on campus work with veterans, retired elite athletes and adult civilians who are receiving treatment for mild to moderate TBI at the MIBH. Importantly, the MIBH philosophy is that discharge status should not be a barrier to receiving treatment for veterans.

‘Veterans can be reluctant to focus on themselves, so helping train service dogs for others is a way for them to indirectly work on their own goals.’ – Ann Spader

After a one-week assessment, patients embark on a three-week outpatient program that includes working with professional dog trainers to help train service dogs for other veterans with disabilities.  Why is it important that veterans train service dogs for other veterans? Ann Spader, service dog training instructor for WCC, said, “Veterans can be reluctant to focus on themselves, so helping train service dogs for others is a way for them to indirectly work on their own goals.”

Like many person-to-person interactions, training dogs can require significant patience. As they learn to train, patients are required to work on skills like frustration tolerance, expressing positivity, praising and rewarding good behavior and holding focus on the dog instead of turning inward on themselves.

The canine cast

The first eight weeks of life for all of WCC’s dogs can be watched with the live Puppy Cam.

Because service dogs spend their lives working on behalf of their partners, golden and Labrador retrievers are purpose-bred in the WCC headquarters in Maryland to maximize traits of health, temperament and longevity.

Sully training at CU Anschutz
Sully takes a break during a recent training at CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

Here in Colorado, five dogs are currently in training: two yellow labs named Joseph and Sully; a black lab named Nate; and two golden retrievers named Candace and Poyner. Dogs are named in honor of military servicemen and women who have made outstanding contributions and sacrifices for their country. The CU Anschutz dogs join approximately 70 other service dogs being trained in facilities nation-wide.

Each dog works with up to 60 veterans during their two-year training. Much of this training is focused on mobility commands which include helping with balance support and learning to pull wheelchairs for short distances in case of emergency. WCC dogs also identify and interrupt physical stress cues such as a bouncing leg by nudging a partner’s hand or jumping into their lap to decrease anxiety and stress and provide physical grounding. As service dogs accompany their partners in their daily lives, dogs even learn to control their need for bathroom breaks, fittingly designated as the “Better hurry!” command.

During the two years of training, volunteers from CU Anschutz known as ‘Puppy Parents’ help to reinforce the training and socialization during the dogs’ off duty hours. After completing the two years of training, dogs are matched with a veteran in a manner consistent with their own personalities. The pair undergoes an intensive two-week program designed to familiarize both dog and human to the details of their new partnership. The partnership created is celebrated at a graduation ceremony attended by each dog’s namesake or their family and the dogs are transferred into the care and service of their lifelong partners.

Love hormone, unleashed

Why are dogs so skilled at healing emotional wounds? A 2015 study in the journal Science provided some clues: mutual gazing was shown to increase blood levels of oxytocin, the love hormone, in both humans and dogs. This can promote attachment and bonding between dogs and owners. Other studies have shown that petting a dog can lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. Also, dogs are also great listeners; patients have told Spader that talking to the dogs is easier than talking to people, because they don’t feel like they’re being judged.

Service dogs vs. ‘dogs who want to be served’

Sully and Ann at CU Anschutz
Each dog works with up to 60 veterans during their two-year training to become service animals.

Not every dog is meant to be a service dog, Spader said. “Instead of being born to serve, some dogs want to be served,” she laughed. Dogs that are too social or attention-loving to maintain the necessary level of focus on their partner choose a different career path since being a service dog is not the only option for these talented canines. For example, some dogs provide comfort as therapy dogs at veterans’ care facilities, hospitals, and court rooms. Other dogs serve as military family support dogs, where they help heal the rifts within families.

How to get involved

WCC is supported entirely through grants and donations. With the two years of intensive training and care, each dog is estimated to be worth $35,000. Yet, the dog is provided to a veteran at no cost.

There are many ways to get involved. WCC at CU Anschutz is always on the lookout for Puppy Parents or Puppy Sitters. If you are interested in volunteering you can find more information here. Patrons can also donate to the WCC directly or visit WCC’s Amazon wishlist.

When it comes to veterans helping other veterans, Spader said that WCC’s mission-based trauma recovery model relies on the warrior ethos; leave no man behind. She added, “It’s a no-fail mission. The dogs have to be trained, they need to be socialized, because they have such important work to do.”

Guest contributor: Shawna Matthews, a CU Anschutz postdoc

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CU Nursing’s Pearl Treyball wins Nightingale Luminary Award

Mona Pearl Treyball

Mona Pearl Treyball, PhD, hoists a 20-plus-pound trophy up in the air for a guest to see. For the nursing professor, the bronze statue of a kneeling Florence Nightingale cradling a patient in her arms represents more than her recent win. It affirms her life’s work.

From the frontlines of the battlefield to the halls of academia, the retired Air Force colonel and University of Colorado College of Nursing professor has fought for the care and protection of this country’s military families for nearly 30 years.

Pearl Treyball is a 2019 winner of the Nightingale Luminary Award. The prestigious award recognizes excellence and innovation in nursing that extends Nightingale’s legacy.

“If you look closely, it appears she’s caring for a soldier,” Pearl Treyball said of the poignant statue of Nightingale comforting a person on the ground, just as she did on the battlefields of the Crimean War 165 years ago. “So our nursing profession is really rooted in caring for our military veterans.”

One of 24 selected for the this year’s regional award (out of 255 nominations), and one of 12 selected from 60 luminaries across the state, Pearl Treyball won for her work as founder and specialty director of the Veteran and Military Health Care (VMHC) program on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

April Giles
April Giles, Fitzsimons Innovation Community vice president of business development

Last year, U.S. News and World Report recognized Pearl Treyball and her program for service and innovation.

Other CU Anschutz colleagues recently recognized:

  • April Giles, Fitzsimons Innovation Community vice president of business development, has been selected as a finalist for the Denver Business Journal’s “Outstanding Women in Business Award.” Giles leads strategy and growth initiatives for the Fitzsimons Innovation Community. The prestigious 21-year-old award program recognizes women from the Denver metro area for their innovation, entrepreneurship, professional accomplishment and community leadership.
  • The University of Colorado School of Medicine has been recognized as an Employer of Excellence (EOE) for its support of physician assistants and other advanced practice providers at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. The recognition comes from the American Academy of Physician Assistants’ Center for Healthcare Leadership and Management (CHLM). CHLM partnered with HealthStream to gain an understanding of what PAs value in their place of employment. Criteria for the EOE awards focused on: a positive and supportive PA work environment; providing opportunities for PAs to provide meaningful input that leads to positive organizational change; keeping PAs informed about organizational activity and decisions; involving PAs in leadership efforts to improve the quality of patient care; and creating processes for effective conflict management.

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Cohen Clinic celebrates one-year anniversary with 5K run

Run and One Cohen Clinic run

The Steven A. Cohen Military Clinic celebrated its one-year anniversary on April 13 with a 5K run, part of a national event to raise awareness about the problem of veteran suicide. The Cohen Clinic opened in March 2018 and is located in Greenwood Village, about 15 minutes from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

“We chose the ‘Run as One’ event because we care about addressing the issue of veteran suicide, and we want to raise awareness about the issue of suicide within the community,” said Gillian Kaag, director of the Cohen Clinic. Additionally, at the one-year celebration, the Colorado Veterans Project presented the Cohen Clinic with a $10,000 donation, which will be used to expand access to care for veterans and their families.

Cohen Clinic one-year anniversary
The Cohen Clinic celebrated its one-year anniversary with a fun run through the Highlands neighborhood of northwest Denver.

“This donation will support the clinic’s priority on working to remove barriers to care so that veterans and their families can get the critical care they need,” Kaag said.

Medal of Honor recipient and Cohen Veterans Network ambassador Kyle White attended the celebration as the special guest of honor.

Providing low- to no-cost care

Working in relation to the core services offered by the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center at CU Anschutz, the Cohen Clinic provides confidential, compassionate and personalized mental health care to post-9/11 veterans, National Guard and Reserves and their family members at low to no cost.

The Cohen Clinic represents a $9.8 million partnership between the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the Cohen Veterans Network, a nonprofit philanthropic organization. Steven A. Cohen, a philanthropist and successful hedge fund manager, created the Cohen Veterans Network in 2016 to establish 25 clinics by 2020 across the United States in areas with a high population of veterans. In Colorado alone, there are currently 60,000 post-9/11 veterans who reside in the state.

There are currently 11 clinics open, with 14 set to open by the end of 2019.

“It is exciting to be connected to the local community and the broader mission of bringing access of low-cost, high-quality mental health care to veterans and their family members,” said Holli Keyser, communications and marketing manager for the Cohen Clinic.

A year of accomplishment

The Cohen Clinic has served 240 clients over the past year, with 57 percent being veterans and 33 percent being family members. The clinic is focused on removing barriers to mental health care, offering transportation to appointments, childcare in the clinic and financial assistance through the Cohen Veterans Fund.

Additionally, the Cohen Clinic offers telehealth appointments — face-to-face counseling online, which allows veterans and their families to get the critical care they need, particularly in rural or underserved areas across Colorado.

“Our team is dedicated to the mission to save lives, save families and save the futures of post-9/11 veterans and their families,” Kaag said.

Providing outreach to the local community has also contributed to the Cohen Clinic’s success, including building a network of more than 100 referral partner organizations that provide services to veterans and family members.

“We have a robust outreach team to support the veteran community and ensure that organizations know we are a trusted resource for military families in Colorado,” Keyser said.

Whole mental health

The Cohen Clinic provides services for behavior health challenges such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep problems, anger, grief and loss and transition issues.

However, the Cohen Clinic not only focuses on evidence-based mental health treatments and prevention, but also provides education and training, family support, case management as well as helping clients transition into civilian life.

“Military families can connect with our clinic at multiple places of health, and we offer trusted help and resources for the community locally and throughout the state,” Keyser said.

The design of the clinic also contributes to providing whole mental health care, helping clients and their families feel at home when they visit. Original artwork created by local veterans hang on the walls, and the quiet environment provides a soothing feeling from the moment someone enters the clinic.

“We have an intentional design of the clinic: a calming environment and relaxing therapy rooms for our adult clients, children and teens,” Keyser said.

For more information about the services offered at the Cohen Clinic, please visit its website. 

Guest contributor: Story by Katherine Phillips

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Trego named Distinguished Nurse Scholar-in-Residence

Lori Trego, PhD, CNM, FAAN, an associate professor in the CU College of Nursing, has been selected as the 2018–2019 Distinguished Nurse Scholar-in-Residence at the National Academy of Medicine (NAM).

Formed by a congressional charter, the National Academy of Medicine provides analysis and advice on medicine and health with the goal of improving the nation’s health system. The NAM Distinguished Nurse Scholar-in-Residence program, initiated in 1992, provides a year-long leadership opportunity to participate in shaping health policy.

During her time as a NAM Distinguished Nurse Scholar, Trego plans to expand her leadership experience in enhancing the wellness of women who serve, and have served, in the nation’s military.

“I am honored to be selected for this extraordinary opportunity to represent the American Academy of Nursing, the American Nurses Association, and the American Nurses Foundation, and to provide a nursing perspective during the formation of health policy,” said Trego. “My intention while at NAM is to champion efforts to improve the health and care of active military and Veteran women through evidence-based policies and informed policy decision-making.”

Trego is a certified nurse midwife and associate professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, where she teaches in the Veteran and Military Healthcare graduate program. She recently implemented the University’s Veteran and Military Health Area of Excellence, an interprofessional, cross-campus collaborative to improve health care and education for those providing care to Veterans. Trego retired from the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in 2015 after 25 years of active duty service. Having built a program of research dedicated to improving the health of military women across the life course, her current work with veteran women investigates women’s perceptions of the care afforded to them by the Veterans Administration.

The Distinguished NAM Nurse Scholar-in-Residence program is supported by the American Academy of Nursing, the American Nurses Association and the American Nurses Foundation.

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Sen. Cory Gardner tours Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic

The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus celebrated achieving 100 clients with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who stopped by for a tour and conversation on how the clinic provides low to no-cost mental health services to post-9/11 veterans and their family members.

Sen. Gardner at Cohen Clinic
Sen. Cory Gardner (right) visits the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic as part of its celebration of helping 100 clients since opening.

Gardner was impressed by the soft ambiance of the clinic, as well as the veteran and military family artwork exhibited throughout the facility. At one point, Gardner snapped a photo of two wooden hand-carved flags displayed in the clinic’s lobby, remarking on the craftsmanship of Colorado veteran Andrew Darr.

Following the tour, CU leadership including Regent and Board Chair Sue Sharkey, CU Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center and Cohen Clinic staff engaged in a robust dialogue with the senator. The discussion ranged on topics including the clinic’s day-one rollout of telehealth throughout Colorado, as well as the imperatives and challenges of providing comprehensive mental health care to rural Colorado veterans.

Gardner asked questions on the types of treatment provided by the clinic and expressed interest in working on legislation that supports veterans’ transition to civilian life. The visit was a capstone to the clinic’s celebration of helping 100 clients since opening last spring.

Guest contributor: Article submitted by Holli Keyser, communications and marketing specialist at The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic. 

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Building 500 renamed the Fitzsimons Building

The structure that has long been the centerpiece of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus — Building 500 — has been given a new name befitting its proud history and stature: the Fitzsimons Building.

The CU Board of Regents voted unanimously to rename the building that opened its doors in December 1941, four days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and where thousands of soldiers were treated and Coloradans were born.

To commemorate the renaming, and to reflect on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus’s rich history, a celebration and sign unveiling took place Sept. 13 both inside and on the grounds of the stately art-deco building. The event was held 100 years after the opening of the first building on the army base that originally occupied the grounds.

About 50 people — including Regents, members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation, chancellors, the provost, deans, state legislators, Aurora council members and other dignitaries — attended the event. Remarks were delivered by CU President Bruce Benson; CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Elliman; Ben Stein, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.); and Sue Sharkey, chair of the Board of Regents. Paul Tauer, who was mayor of Aurora at the inception of the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, also attended.

‘Growing tremendously’

Benson recounted the modest start of CU’s School of Medicine in Old Main on the Boulder campus in 1883. The school had two rooms, two professors, two instructors and two hastily recruited students. “Apparently there weren’t enough sick people in Boulder, so the operation moved to Denver in 1925, eventually taking up residence at 9th and Colorado,” he said. “Our health sciences operations relocated to the CU Anschutz Medical Campus in 2006, and has been growing tremendously ever since.”

Fitzsimons Building
At the unveiling of the new Fitzsimons Building sign: from left, CU President Bruce Benson, Paul Tauer, former mayor of Aurora, CU Board of Regents Chair Sue Sharkey and CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Elliman.

Benson noted that when the U.S. Army a century ago opened the hospital in Aurora — first christened Fitzsimons General Hospital — it began a proud history of treating injured men and women of the armed forces. He said the legacy of care of the nation’s veterans has transitioned into health care for people in Colorado and beyond. “That’s why it’s important to maintain the Fitzsimons name … and to continue the legacy of the U.S. Army Medical Corps,” Benson said. “We should all be proud that the Fitzsimons name will help this facility begin its second century, and we can be equally proud of the thousands of men and women who have continued to live up to the proud history of health care at this facility.”

The building initially received the name Fitzsimons in honor of Lt. William Thomas Fitzsimons, a civilian surgeon serving as a medical officer who was the first U.S. Army officer killed in World War I.

Benson said he was sorry for the absence of Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan, who passed away in May after battling cancer. “Steve was a friend for many years and did a great job as mayor and member of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority Board.”

Tradition of caring for veterans

Elliman said that in 1995, the Fitzsimons Army Medical Campus’s last year of operation, it generated $328 million in economic activity. Today, the CU Anschutz Medical Campus generates $4 billion in economic activity, on par with Colorado’s ski industry.

He noted that CU Anschutz continues its tradition of caring for our nation’s veterans, including:

Sharkey recounted her family’s ties to the Fitzsimons General Hospital, which in December 1941 became known as Building 500, a reference to the structure’s location 500 feet from the center of campus. She explained that in World War I the facility was first established to treat casualties of WWI, many of whom suffered from tuberculosis as well as chemical warfare. She pointed out that President Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955 and spent nearly two months recuperating at Fitzsimons.

Sharkey said her brother, while a student at Colorado State University, suffered severe injuries in a car crash and spent five months recovering at the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center. She said her brother had hoped to serve in the military, just as her father had, but his injuries prevented him from realizing those dreams. “But he had the privilege and honor to meet these soldiers during the Vietnam conflict who had served and were recuperating,” she said.

Against the backdrop of this rich history, Sharkey said, the CU Anschutz Medical Campus is “leading us into a new era of health care, research and education. It is quickly becoming one of the leading academic medical centers in the country, and a top health care destination.

“We are fortunate to have this facility and the people who work on the leading edge of health care,” she added. “We’re also fortunate to inherit our tradition of excellent health care that has happened on this site now for a century. I trust we will do those who came before us proud.”

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Students devise strategies to combat prevalence of suicide

The fifth Rocky Mountain Region Public Health Case Competition was held at the Health Science Library at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus earlier this month.

Fifteen teams received a realistic case-study about suicide prevalence, a public health issue especially relevant to Colorado. Each team had approximately 24 hours to analyze the case, create a public health solution and present it to a panel of judges.

First-place team in Public Health case competition
The first-place winning team in this year’s competition focused on veteran suicide prevention. Team members are, from left, Sujeith Barraza, Kacy Lorber, Phuong Banh, Elizabeth Ko and Morgan Nestingen. Photo by Katie Brumfield, Colorado School of Public Health.

The prizes for the top three teams were varying amounts of scholarship money up to $1,000. Three teams were chosen as the people’s choice recipients, with each member receiving $100.

The teams were specifically chosen to include different disciplines surrounding healthcare, including the Colorado School of Public Health (Colorado SPH), the CU School of Medicine, College of NursingCollege of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, School of Public Affairs, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School.

“Public health stretches across all disciplines,” said Tonya Ewers, director of communications and alumni relations for the ColoradoSPH. “This is a great practice-learning opportunity for these students to learn to work together to solve health problems.”

This year’s winning team included three graduate public health students from the ColoradoSPH — two from its program at CU Anschutz and one student from their program at the University of Northern Colorado — as well a graduate student in pharmacy and another in nursing. Fitting for Veterans Day, their focus was on veteran suicide prevention with a project title of “Serve and Support: You Stood for Us, Now Let Us Stand for You.” Their project included media outreach ads and posters with grabbing headlines like “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” and a peer navigation program that enrolls veterans at the time of discharge. Their case competition plan also included a mobile app and social media outreach to stay top of mind for veteran health.

First-place team member, Kacy Lorber (ColoradoSPH) posted photos of her experience on Instagram and said: “I got to present to so many important people but specifically two House Representatives in Colorado! The highlight was when state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet told us that she got bill ideas from our presentations. I am so grateful for this experience.”

Judges panel at public health case competition
Judges in the final round of the case competition are, from left, Carol Runyan, PhD, director of PIPER in the ColoradoSPH; state Rep. Kim Ransom; state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet; Larry Wolk, MD; and Jon Samet, MD. Photo by Katie Brumfield, Colorado School of Public Health.

Diana Ir, current president of the case competition planning committee and student in the ColoradoSPH, participated in the competition last year.

“I had such a great experience,” said Ir. “I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to be a part of putting it together this year. I encourage everyone to participate in the future. Between the potential scholarship money and the awesome collaborative environment, you shouldn’t miss it!”

RESULTS – Rocky Mountain Regional Case Competition 

1st Place ($1,000 each student scholarship)

“Serve and Support

You Stood for Us, Now Let Us Stand with You!

Comprehensive Veteran Suicide Prevention”

Team Members and Affiliations

Sujeith Barraza, ColoradoSPH (UNC home campus)

Phuong Banh, ColoradoSPH

Elizabeth Ko, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science

Kacy Lorber, ColoradoSPH

Morgan Nestingen, College of Nursing

2nd Place ($500 scholarship to each student):

“PACT: Patience Assistance Continuing Treatment: Expanding CDPHE’s Warm Handoff

Team Members and Affiliations

Angie Kim, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science

Alison Hoffman, ColoradoSPH

Cheryl A. Jones, ColoradoSPH (UNC home campus)

Randy Xun, ColoradoSPH

3rd Place ($250 scholarship to each student):


Team Members and Affiliations

Charlotte Whitney, School of Public Affairs

Naga Srinija Gummadi, ColoradoSPH

Johnny Williams, ColoradoSPH

Vikasini Mahalingam, School of Medicine

Three teams received People’s Choice Awards ($100 scholarship to each student):

People’s Choice

“Hometown Platoon: A Mobile Mentorship Program”

Team Members and Affiliations

Heather Hergert, ColoradoSPH (CSU home campus)

Hailee Griffin, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science

Isaiah Francis, ColoradoSPH

Hannah LaDow, ColoradoSPH

Scott Cao, School of Medicine

People’s Choice ($100 scholarship to each student):

“Welcome to My Life: CO Health Care Workers’ Wellness Program”

Team Members and Affiliations

Jenny Duong, ColoradoSPH

Heather Marshall, ColoradoSPH (CSU home campus)

Meena Mattamana, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science

Hailey Hyde, ColoradoSPH

People’s Choice ($100 scholarship to each student):

“It’s Okay, To Not Be Okay”

Team Members and Affiliations

Madeline Huey, School of Medicine

Victoria Laskey, School of Public Affairs

Allison Seidel, ColoradoSPH

Katie Schweber, ColoradoSPH

Mackenzie Wilderman, College of Engineering and Applied Science (Bioengineering)

Editor’s note: Tonya Ewers, director of communications and alumni relations for the Colorado School of Public Health, contributed to this report. 

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Send a thank you card to our veterans

Sometimes saying thank you to our veterans seems so small when their service is anything but that. So let’s make it more personal!

The CU Heroes Clinic at the School of Dental Medicine and the Office of Veteran & Military Student Services invite you to say thank you to our military veterans enrolled at CU Anschutz and CU Denver. It won’t cost you a dime, and it will help show our gratitude for those who have bravely served our country.

Click the link below to pick a card design and a special thank you message, or write your own message. Our CU military veterans will receive your card just in time for Veterans Day on Nov. 11!

Don’t wait – the deadline to send your card is Friday, Oct. 27.

Send a card!

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Landmark gift makes CU Anschutz a national leader in veterans health care

Thanks to a gift of $38 million from the Marcus Foundation, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus will soon become a national model for the diagnosis and care of veterans who have suffered from traumatic brain injuries and related psychological health conditions.

Leaders of the Marcus Institute for Brain Health at CU Anschutz
Standing on the second floor of the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, where the Marcus Institute for Brain Health will be located, are, from left, retired Navy SEAL Lt. Cmdr. Pete Scobell, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, philanthropist Bernard Marcus, Dr. James P. Kelly, and CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Elliman.

The Marcus Institute for Brain Health (MIBH) opens this summer in the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. The one-of-a-kind institute will be the cornerstone of a planned national network devoted to innovative and intensive treatment of military veterans who served our nation and now suffer the invisible wounds of war.

The MIBH was announced Friday by CU Anschutz leaders and Bernard Marcus, whose Atlanta-based philanthropic organization has steadfastly supported the health and well-being of military veterans. The luncheon celebration drew more than 100 attendees, including leaders from CU Anschutz’s hospital partners as well as CU President Bruce Benson, CU First Lady Marcy Benson and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman.

‘Ideal place’ for innovative institute

Bernard Marcus and CU President Bruce Benson
Bernard Marcus, retired co-founder of The Home Depot and founder of The Marcus Foundation, with CU President Bruce Benson.

CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Elliman said the campus is “the ideal place” to establish an institute that promises to transform health care for military veterans. CU Anschutz, once home to the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, has a long history of serving veterans in addition to providing world-class mental health and wellness care. “We have leading-edge research and innovative programs that literally surround the institute’s efforts,” he said. “The campus is driven by a vision of delivering the best care and pioneering new approaches to treatments that get patients and families back to their lives.”

MIBH Executive Director James P. Kelly, MD, a neurologist and pioneer of customized diagnostic and treatment plans for veterans, led the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for seven years. The MIBH is designed after NICoE, which has successfully treated more than 1,300 active-duty servicemen and women suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and psychological health conditions. “Dr. Kelly came to us with that vision,” Elliman said, “and without him we would not be standing here today.”

Dr. Kelly stepped to the podium and, after acknowledging Chancellor Elliman and CU School of Medicine Dean John J. Reilly, Jr., MD, for their leadership, gave an emotional thanks to his wife of 30 years for her unwavering support throughout his career.

Dr. James Kelly of the Marcus Institute for Brain Health
Dr. James P. Kelly, executive director of the Marcus Institute for Brain Health

“The Marcus Institute of Brain Health is uniquely designed to address combined neurological and psychological conditions by targeting underlying causes,” Dr. Kelly said. “Where better to create such a place than the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center on an academic medical campus with a proud tradition of caring for military service members and their families?”

Immersive care

Retired Navy SEAL Lt. Cmdr. Pete Scobell
Retired Navy SEAL Lt. Cmdr. Pete Scobell

The MIBH will immerse veterans in treatment by a team of professionals in one place, rather than having them travel from clinic to clinic, Dr. Kelly said. The institute will optimize the functions of conventional medical diagnostic treatment while integrating alternative approaches such as mindfulness training, physical therapy and massage, acupuncture, yoga, and canine and equine therapy.

Care will be customized to each patient’s needs. “The Marcus Institute for Brain Health will share its lessons learned with systems across the country in real time. … What’s happening in Colorado will reverberate beyond our state’s borders to every corner of this nation,” Dr. Kelly said. “The need for such a program is huge.”

Nearly 400,000 U.S. servicemen and women have been diagnosed with TBI since 9/11 and as many as 600,000 suffered related psychological health conditions, he said.

‘I know I’m not alone’

One of these patients, retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Spencer Milo, has been named director of veteran programs at the MIBH. “As a military veteran who sustained injuries in Afghanistan, I am a huge advocate for the Marcus Institute for Brain Health,” Milo said. “Treatment like the traumatic brain injury therapies now being offered here saved my life, and I know I’m not alone.”

Plaque of Marcus Institute for Brain Health at CU Anschutz
CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Elliman points to a replica of the permanent Marcus Institute for Brain Health plaque as Dr. James P. Kelly, MIBH executive director, and Bernard Marcus, philanthropist and retired co-founder of Home Depot, look on.

Retired Navy SEAL Lt. Cmdr. Pete Scobell explained how he was the second SEAL to go to NICoE for treatment of TBI and related psychological conditions. He recalled sitting in a room with a dozen physicians representing “all specialties. They were out to solve the problem, not just treat the symptoms,” he said. “I know this can change lives – it’s unique.”

Cohen Veterans Network partnership

In addition to the announcement of the $38 million gift to create the Marcus Institute for Brain Health, the CU Anschutz Medical Campus announced it will work with the Cohen Veterans Network.

The network, in a partnership totaling $9.8 million, will work with CU Anschutz to build a mental health clinic to serve veteran and military families in greater Denver with free, or low-cost, personalized care and integrated case management support.

Founded by hedge fund manager and Connecticut philanthropist Steven A. Cohen, the Cohen Veterans Network is creating 25 Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics throughout the U.S. over a five-year period. Clients, veterans and family members will be treated by high-quality, culturally competent, network-trained clinicians, and will receive referrals to additional services at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and in metro Denver.

Another distinctive aspect of the MIBH will be its service to military veterans regardless of their discharge status or ability to pay.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us across the nation to help those who have suffered as a result of their military service,” Dr. Kelly said, noting that the care at CU Anschutz will be further augmented by the soon-to-open Denver VA Hospital. Colorado will serve as a national model of seamless transitions of health care for veterans, he said. “It’s our intention that the Marcus Institute for Brain Health collaborate with academic and private-sector partners and the network of specialty centers – all working together to meet the needs of our veterans in multiple locations across the nation.”

Only the first step

Bernie Marcus, the retired co-founder of The Home Depot, said it’s an honor for his foundation to support veterans’ health because proper care for these selfless servicemen and women has been inadequate in the United States. He praised Dr. Kelly’s leadership of NICoE at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and said the center’s innovative vision will carry forward at MIBH.

“We’re starting here in Colorado with this medical campus,” Marcus said. “This building is only the first step of a major organization that’s going to be unaffiliated; we’ll join together and try to create the best of the best, and that’s what my foundation is all about.”

CU President Bruce Benson said the University of Colorado system has long been committed to serving those who have served our country. “Our campuses and communities are better places for the presence of veterans and military-connected students, families, faculty and staff,” he said. “These new initiatives further strengthen that commitment. We are deeply appreciative of this tremendous support and proud to be able to do our part.”

While the Marcus Foundation’s gift of $38 million is over five years for the MIBH, which will also serve civilian adults who have sustained mild to moderate TBI, the institute is set up for the long term, according to Chancellor Elliman. “Our commitment is to keep this institute going for as long as there is a need,” he said.

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Psychologists with holistic approach to rehabilitation bring therapy into homes

Rehabilitation psychologists might not be as well-known as physical and occupational therapists, but the specialists have emerged as integral players in the recovery process for many victims of catastrophic injuries or life-altering illnesses.

According to University of Colorado School of Medicine (SOM) Professor Lisa Brenner, PhD, that is because rehabilitation psychologists like herself have a unique view of the recovery process. They are able to work with patients after they leave the hospital or a rehabilitation clinic to help them restore as much of their old lives as possible. Rehabilitation psychologists coordinate care between doctors, therapists and family members to help patients cope with new challenges and build fulfilling and meaningful relationships.

Lisa Brenner, right
University of Colorado School of Medicine Professor Lisa Brenner, at right, at an American Psychological Association conference for rehabilitation psychologists

This holistic approach can improve the well-being of patients as they adapt to a different world, which can be a difficult process.

“For many people, the big adjustment is after they go home, and that’s when the psychological impact for them and their families really begins to unfold,” said Dr. Brenner, who is a member of the SOM’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Dr. Brenner has spent her career studying traumatic injuries and helping people recover from disabilities caused by accidents or chronic illnesses. Her work at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus puts her on the front line of a rapidly expanding and evolving field as the medical world becomes more aware of how holistic care benefits patients. Rehabilitation psychologists treat a wider range of conditions than ever before, including strokes, multiple sclerosis and AIDS.

Focusing on the whole patient

Rehabilitation psychologists are one of many different therapists a recovering patient could encounter. Their job bridges the divide between specialists who focus on physical recovery or provide support for mental health issues.

Dr. Brenner gives the example of someone with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) who has returned home from the hospital. Often, a physical therapist might focus on improving a patient’s coordination, and an occupational therapist might help them relearn how to do household tasks. A doctor might prescribe an antidepressant if the patient became depressed.

When different doctors and therapists focus on separate problems, they might not communicate effectively with each other, which Dr. Brenner said could lead to gaps in treatment. Rehabilitation psychologists coordinate the work of multiple therapists to develop an integrated treatment plan.

“The more we’re able to provide holistic and comprehensive care, the better it will be for our patients,” Dr. Brenner said. Rehabilitation psychologists also form long-term relationships with patients and their families to establish reasonable expectations for recovery and make sure the treatment plan is working. A rehabilitation psychologist’s training in mental health care could help them see emerging mental health issues before anyone else.

Greater urgency for treating veterans

Rehabilitation psychology has existed for decades, but the field has developed rapidly in the past 15 years. One cause has been the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans have returned with life-changing injuries such as TBI or amputations, and doctors and therapists have had to develop new ways to help them adapt.

The suicide rate among veterans also has skyrocketed, bringing added urgency to those who help veterans recover from injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Brenner, who directs the Rocky Mountain Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center (MIRECC) for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Denver, sees the difference rehabilitation psychologists and new holistic approaches can make.

“TBI and negative psychiatric outcomes such as suicide travel together, and we need to be thinking of them together,” Dr. Brenner said. “It doesn’t need to be one set of providers addressing the mental health problems and challenges, and one set of providers dealing with the brain injury.”

An expanding discipline

Lisa Brenner
University of Colorado School of Medicine professor Lisa Brenner, PhD, discusses rehabilitation psychology with peers in Israel in December 2016 as part of an exchange program.

Dr. Brenner, who is the president of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Rehabilitation Psychology, said the field has expanded its scope beyond TBI and catastrophic injuries. Strategies that have proven effective for treating veterans and accident victims have started being applied to other chronic conditions. Rehabilitation psychologists now treat patients who might live decades with a chronic disease such as AIDS.

“Many more people are thinking holistically,” Dr. Brenner said. “We’re rethinking the way we’ve siloed things.”

Rehabilitation psychology has spread worldwide. Recently, Brenner led a delegation to Israel as part of an exchange program that visited 15 hospitals, rehabilitation centers and other facilities across Israel. A delegation from Israel will visit the U.S. this summer.

The purpose is to share best practices, develop collaborative research opportunities and draw lessons from different experiences. One difference Dr. Brenner noticed is that Israelis have more experience helping civilians with post-traumatic stress disorder manage the strain that comes from being in a region that experiences repeated conflicts close to home. Because the sources of stress cannot be removed from individuals’ lives, therapists have to help them cope in an environment that often does not feel safe.

“There’s a lot we can learn from each other,” Dr. Brenner said.

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