Chrisanne Gordon

A physician uses her personal struggles to help veterans suffering with traumatic brain injury

Dr. Chrisanne Gordon’s speech was so moving, so different from any of the previous Memorial Day messages he’d heard over the years, that Corey O’Brien felt compelled to make his way through the crowd to thank her personally.

“You’re usually such a wallflower,” O’Brien’s wife said, more than just a little surprised.

O’Brien could hardly believe it himself. But Gordon clearly hadn’t come to the Dublin event to deliver typical thank-a-veteran commentary. She was there to say that the nation needs to do more for its military men and women, too many of whom have had their lives upended by the common, complex and often undiagnosed effects of traumatic brain injury.

The U.S. Army and Ohio National Guard veteran introduced himself to Gordon, a physician who founded the Dublin-based Resurrecting Lives Foundation in 2012 to assist and advocate for servicemen and women with traumatic brain injuries.

He didn’t immediately explain the depth of his struggle since returning from Iraq, which left him feeling like a car on the freeway “with four flat tires,” bumping along awkwardly as other vehicles zoomed past. O’Brien had five kids, a career as a high-school science teacher and hardly any patience. His anger sometimes flared to the edge of violence.

“I was in a dark place,” he said.

Gordon suggested they make a plan to meet so that she could learn more about what he had experienced while deployed.

“We start talking and I tell her about the blasts,” said O’Brien, 41, who lives in Dublin. “I tell her about the mortars.”

Victims of traumatic brain injury often blame themselves for their changed behavior, not realizing that blows or force to the head have caused lasting harm, Gordon said. Step one is helping them understand they have injuries, not character flaws.

“They’re out of their brains; they’re not out of their minds,” she explained. “Certain pathways are literally ripped—just like the earthquake in California. There’s a big upheaval, and things are no longer connected.”

Gordon told O’Brien that she thought he could benefit from transcendental meditation as part of his cognitive retraining and healing. She also suspected he’d soon be able to help her help more veterans. That was two years ago, and Gordon was right: O’Brien now heads the foundation’s transcendental meditation initiative.

“It’s kind of empowering to feel close to who you used to be. I have goosebumps just thinking about the difference,” he said. “I caught myself humming the other day. You don’t hum when you’re angry.”

Those who know Gordon well aren’t surprised that the Resurrecting Lives Foundation, a nonprofit that has served vets in 28 states and linked dozens to essential resources, emerged as her response to personal pain and tragedy.

But the dots didn’t connect immediately.

The Marysville-based physician, 66, had suffered her own traumatic brain injury several years ago, striking her head against brick while pushing a box of china into the crawl space in her home. “I wasn’t in a war zone and I didn’t do anything heroic,” she said, smiling. “I was putting away Christmas decorations.”

She was knocked unconscious and, when she woke up, feared paralysis. A friend found her and got her to the emergency room. Gordon was anxious, dizzy and unable to tolerate light. She couldn’t speak or figure out how to use a phone.

Within six weeks, the fear and confusion were so bad she considered suicide to escape. “I was lucky, because I didn’t have the means or know how to do it,” Gordon said.

And yet, initial scans of her brain hadn’t revealed abnormalities. That’s not unusual for the so-called “invisible injuries,” whose discovery is often delayed or missed when outward signs don’t appear severe, she said.

“My scans were normal back then, but you should see them now,” Gordon said. “The first left turn I was able to negotiate was a year later. I still can’t read a map."

Video by Doral Chenoweth III | The Columbus Dispatch

Though she continues to manage some effects, Gordon had largely recovered by the time a friend’s relative, Army Sgt. Zachary McBride, was killed in Iraq in 2008. She chose to honor his memory by volunteering at Veterans Administration medical clinics in Columbus and found herself conducting screenings for brain injury.

“It was more than just a little ironic that I’d lost my voice and got it back,” Gordon said. “But there were all these young men and women who have no voice.”

She soon developed a vision for a foundation that would advocate exclusively on awareness, treatment and employment for veterans with traumatic brain injury.

Elle Crader, a former Central Ohio resident who assists Gordon with some of the Resurrecting Lives Foundation’s work, said she’s never encountered someone so dedicated to a cause.

“This is her life,” said Crader, who now lives in Chicago. “She personally treats a ton of these veterans, at no cost, who come to her one way or another. Some have literally said, ‘I’m going to kill myself. Tell me why I shouldn’t.’ ”

Gordon can give them plenty of reasons, along with expert care and hope. The foundation has so far intervened in more than 50 suicide threats.

An estimated 20 to 25 percent of the nearly 3.2 million returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have a traumatic brain injury, according to the foundation, while an estimated 30 percent have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Such brain injuries regularly lead to misery for hundreds of thousands of people. In addition to physical effects, victims often suffer high rates of substance abuse, unemployment, homelessness and incarceration.

“The reason there has been a surge in suicide is because they don’t want to be a burden,” Gordon said.

But there are many treatment models that can help the brain re-establish critical attachments and connections. Yoga, pilates and meditation provide a foundation for some; others respond to different types of brain exercises and games, she said.

Gordon has aided several veterans in Alaska whose conditions greatly improved after the foundation sent them lighting to help alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. They were going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark, worsening their already-fragile moods. The lamps “have been a great solution,” Gordon said, laughing. “Thank goodness for Amazon.”

Gary Johnson, a former Marysville fire chief who has worked alongside Gordon in emergency rooms and on the foundation, describes his friend as tireless.

“The motive is pure, and the authenticity is there,” he said. “She fights like hell to help these people.”

Gordon hopes to expand the reach of the foundation so it can do more for other populations that tend to suffer high rates of brain injury, including athletes and victims of domestic violence. “We are in a global traumatic brain injury pandemic,” she said, adding that each case is different because every brain is different.

That’s why listening is so important.

O’Brien believes he’s thriving today because Gordon wanted to hear his story, to help him understand that his brain hadn’t healed along with his cuts and bruises.

“I’m a better father, a better husband, a better teacher,” he said. “Resurrecting Lives has, honest to God, resurrected me.”