Physician Overcomes TBI to Return to Active-Duty Medicine

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By Steve Lewis

Lt. Col. Eric Holt returned to medical practice against all odds after suffering a traumatic brain injury.

BETHESDA, MD – It never occurred to Lt. Col. Eric Holt, DO, that he wouldn’t fully recover from the multiple injuries — including traumatic brain injury — he suffered when an IED hit his vehicle in Afghanistan. The blast ripped the vehicle apart and threw Holt into a compound wall.

“Like a lot of people in this community, I believe that, if you’re going to do something, you should do it well,” he shares. “If I recover with seven plates in my head but I can’t turn, walk right or do a flip turn, I’ll do it until I break my neck or I get better.”

And get better he did. In a a recovery process that included a year of therapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) and National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, as well as the Tampa VAMC in Florida, Holt had his neck fused, skull and face repaired, and had to relearn the skills required to speak, swallow, see correctly, walk and other normal daily activities.

Against all odds, the anesthesiologist now has returned to active duty and is back to treating patients at WRNMMC.As if that weren’t enough to underscore his recovery, he also recently ran in a 5K with other injured servicemembers.

“The physical recovery is too easy; you just keep going until you get better,” Holt says modestly, noting he ran seven-minute miles in the 5K and did “fairly well” in an Army 10-mile run.

The mental challenge, given his brain injury, was harder.

While he was able to remember his medical training, he found that working memory was tougher, requiring him to repeat new information constantly to “keep it down.” He still does a lot of word searching and has a tendency to become “overloaded” by noises and experiences difficulty focusing, he notes.

Still, his determination never falters. “Neuropsych was like ‘OK, you’re not going to practice medicine again,’” he recalls. Holt’s response? “Kiss my butt. Yes I am.”

A ‘soldier-athlete’

The recent races were symbolic for Holt, for whom athletics has always held great importance.

“I went to a military college and wanted to be in the military long before I became an officer or received a medical degree,” he recalls. “I was more athletically inclined than academically inclined; originally, I wanted to be a chiropractor because of the sports angle.”

The military, however, suggested he become a physician. Holt says he chose anesthesia because it is most relevant to the battlefield.

“Anesthesia guys intubate and start IV’s, so, as far as relevancy, that’s how it started; I wanted to be with the soldier-athletes, pushing critical-care concepts far forward,” says Holt.

There is a dual meaning in the term “far forward.” Holt is dedicated to helping advance knowledge and practice in his field; he even has a patent pending for an anesthesia product. But he’s also looking at the potential next theaters for warfare.

“For example, Afghanistan has fewer fixed hospitals than Iraq,” he explains. “In Africa and Indonesia, which are massive places, you have large bodies of water, and you do not have rotor-wing aircraft. What happens at the point of injury directly impacts how a guy will live or work the rest of his life.”

In other words, he continues, when soldiers are injured in Afghanistan, as he was, if they are close to a hospital, you can put a tourniquet on them, rotor-wing them out “and it’s all good.” However, if they are far forward, you have to start worrying about airway, intercerebral pressure and acute pain and chronic pain. “All that is in the realm of the anesthesia professional,” Holt observes.

Lt. Col. Eric Holt says he remembers his medical training but still struggles with working memory.

Continuing to learn

As he moves forward, Holt is continuing his education in order to better position himself to meet his goals. For example, he began a pain fellowship in July.

“It’s a yearlong program — kind of like a masters in anesthesia,” he explains. Despite his memory challenges, Holt is committed to persevering.

“That’s what drives me now,” he says. “Every day — even if I’m dragging myself — I walk by a guy with no legs, no hands or in massive pain. That’s my drive.”

As for the future, Holt would like to try to work toward rapid pain protocols. “Instead of ‘Try this and come back in a couple of weeks,’ I want to quickly get them back to 100% operability,” he shares. “By tweaking some of the stuff out there, we can really help the walking wounded.”And that’s why Holt says he was so determined to return to active duty. “I’d rather work with and for those people than to try to make a buck or get disability,” he says. “They tried to ‘med board’ me out, but I said no way. The only reason I’m a doctor is because I was in the military.”

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