Campus News

Gift provides brain injury treatment, wellness services for veterans

A $12.5 million gift from the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network has established the THRIVE program in the College of Arts & Sciences to help with traumatic head injuries and provide services for North Carolina veterans.

(L-R): Jason P. Mihalik, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Center; Terry Rhodes, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences; James Kelly, executive director of the Marcus Institute for Brain Health; and Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz.
(L-R): Jason P. Mihalik, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Center; Terry Rhodes, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences; James Kelly, executive director of the Marcus Institute for Brain Health; and Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. (Image courtesy of University Development)

The Matthew Gfeller Center in the UNC College of Arts & Sciences will launch a new initiative to make treatment for traumatic brain injuries more accessible for military veterans in and around North Carolina, thanks to a $12.5 million gift. The investment from the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network will enable Carolina to establish a new outreach program dedicated to treating traumatic brain injuries and related health conditions, promoting overall wellness for veterans.

The Transforming Health and Resilience in Veterans, or THRIVE, Program will be a community-based clinical outreach program designed to provide care to veterans who are experiencing the effects of traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress, resulting from a career serving our nation. The THRIVE Program will evaluate, diagnose and treat physical, cognitive and other health conditions in a monthlong care program for approximately 140 veterans per year over the next 10 years. The program will provide a referral network and post-program follow-ups for as many as 400 veterans and family members every year when it is fully operational.

After a six-month building and pilot phase, the THRIVE Program is slated to begin full operations in January 2022. Veterans who want to learn more can email thrive@unc.edu or apply for care on the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network website.

Participants in THRIVE will be treated regardless of insurance coverage or ability to pay. Among this veteran patient population, consideration will be given to individuals regardless of discharge status due to traumatic brain injury or psychological health conditions. These populations often have a particularly hard time accessing assistance and treatment.

(L-R): Jason P. Mihalik, co-director, Matthew Gfeller Center; David Routh, vice chancellor for University Development; Kevin Guskiewicz, chancellor; James Kelly, executive director, Marcus Institute for Brain Health.

(L-R): Jason P. Mihalik, co-director, Matthew Gfeller Center; David Routh, vice chancellor for University Development; Kevin M. Guskiewicz, chancellor; James Kelly, executive director, Marcus Institute for Brain Health. (Image courtesy of University Development)

“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an interdisciplinary approach to health care. The THRIVE Program is an important example of our culture of collaboration and how we are addressing the health care needs in North Carolina both in research and clinical operations,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz, who is also a concussion researcher and founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Center. “Carolina’s commitment to service, particularly in supporting our military veterans, is foundational, and we must find new and innovative ways to meet the needs of the people of our state and beyond. We are grateful to the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network for enabling us to do this work through the THRIVE Program.”

Established in 2010, the Matthew Gfeller Center is a leading epicenter for traumatic brain injury research. For more than two decades, Carolina and its Matthew Gfeller Center have demonstrated expertise to fill this gap in clinical service for veterans in and around North Carolina. The THRIVE Program will build on the center’s work, including research focusing on brain health initiatives and clinical trials in active-duty service members, primarily those in Special Operations Forces. These efforts have recently expanded to include Special Forces and conventional airborne soldiers. Jason Mihalik, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Center, will serve as the THRIVE Program’s chief executive officer alongside an expert team of clinicians and researchers to develop and extend this new clinical outreach initiative to veterans.

“Our decadelong military research partnership has afforded the Matthew Gfeller Center team a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices made by our nation’s service members and the lasting impact those experiences may have on their long-term neurological and psychological health,” Mihalik said. “We are thankful for this tremendous partnership with the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network to carry out the THRIVE Program’s clinical mission to benefit veterans and their families in an innovative clinical outreach program in the communities we serve.”

Active partnerships with military entities and, now, new collaborations with UNC Physicians Network and UNC Health will allow the Matthew Gfeller Center to ensure veterans have access to the health care professionals and resources needed to successfully transition to civilian life.

Following a pre-visit clinical intake process, veterans will undergo a thorough multidisciplinary wellness examination. Housing will be provided to those who qualify for the program. The team of physicians, neuropsychologists, athletic trainers, physical therapists, social workers and counselors will create and implement an integrated, individualized care plan for each veteran.

Dr. Shawn Kane, the THRIVE Program’s chief medical officer and associate professor in the department of family medicine at Carolina, spent 27 years as a physician in the U.S. Army. “It is important for us to leverage our expertise and health care resources to assist our veterans who may have developed long-term, complex physical and neurological health issues from combat-related exposures in service to our nation,” he said.

The program will provide participants with assistance in successfully completing a treatment plan and connecting them with a follow-up treatment plan closer to where they live after finishing the core, monthlong intervention. At a minimum, THRIVE Program managers will check in with participants four times in the year following completion of the THRIVE Program: at the one-month, three-month, six-month and one-year marks.

“There are many overlapping symptoms between traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress that make diagnosis and treatment incredibly difficult. All too often, veterans receive inadequate or incomplete care that does not address the true cause of their pain,” said Dr. James Kelly from the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network. “We are thrilled to partner with UNC’s Matthew Gfeller Center to help heal the invisible wounds afflicting our veterans.”

North Carolina and the adjacent southeastern states are home to more than 2 million veterans, and tens of thousands of active-duty service members are stationed at military installations throughout the state, such as Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. According to the Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence, 434,618 service members worldwide were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury between 2000 and 2020.

“Through the THRIVE Program, Professor Mihalik and his team will further their abilities to translate research into real-world solutions that ultimately benefit our society,” said Terry Rhodes, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “We’re grateful for the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network’s shared commitment to working with our veteran community to not just solve problems but improve lives.”

For veterans or first responders seeking care and/or suffering symptoms related to post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury: Apply for care from the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network.

For veterans in crisis, please contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.