When Lindsay Williams shares the list of ailments arising from the combat injuries her husband Erik suffered during Army deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, her account is both staggering—and sadly familiar to caregivers of wounded service members.
Traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, migraines, degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, tinnitus, neuropathy—all are common conditions for those who have been in frequent firefights, have ridden in vehicles that have rolled over, and were close to mortar blasts.
Williams said the Army guidelines to catch cases of traumatic brain injury were written in 2008. But, by then, her husband was well into his second deployment in Iraq, followed by a third in Afghanistan. While on respite at Fort Benning, Georgia, before his fourth deployment, her husband was given a thorough medical exam, and that is when things started falling apart, she said.
He has logged more than 200 days in the hospital and had 15 surgeries. Over time, his brain injury resulted in a blood clot that, in turn, devastated his gastrointestinal system. When a leg wound would not heal, his leg had to be amputated.
“My husband won’t get better,” said Williams. “Just recently he was diagnosed with diabetes. His pancreas has just given up.” A large stomach wound is causing him problems, but she said the doctors told her he would not survive the surgery to fix it.
After her husband was discharged from the Army, the couple bought their first house, a calm refuge on the North Carolina coast. But repeated hospitalizations hours away in Raleigh forced them to sell and move closer to the health care facilities that could provide the level of care her husband routinely required.
Through it all, Williams provided his daily care while raising their three children—now 13, 10 and eight. Along the way, she found it worked best to home-school them.
“I just started with kindergarten. Anyone can teach ABCs and numbers. It just kept going from there. Now, I’m looking at eighth-grade algebra.”
Williams has not ignored her own education either. In May, she finished an associate degree, all online except for a course in public speaking. She said she wants to use her Pillars of Strength scholarship to earn a degree that will qualify her to serve as an intermediary between health care professionals and personal caregivers.
“Our veterans can’t accurately answer their own questions. They can’t tell you what medications they are taking or when they last took [them,] or what they ate that day,” Williams said.
“It’s important for doctors to understand that the caregiver is just as important during an appointment as the veteran.”
She added that the Pillars of Strength scholarship is opening doors that she never imagined would be open to her.
“I never thought I would go to college, and certainly not with three children and an injured husband,” Williams said.
“I want to encourage any caregiver. Even though your life has changed so significantly, it’s never too late to jumpstart your education. I thought it might take me 10 years to reach my goal. But 10 years from now, I will be so happy I started.”