Intrepid center heals soldiers’ ‘invisible wounds’

Soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injury have hope for state-of-the-art treatment at a new military medical center of excellence.

June 01, 2011 |

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a new breed of walking wounded—soldiers who sustain “invisible wounds” to their neurological systems after surviving injuries from improvised explosive devices or mortal shells. It is estimated that nearly one in five soldiers injured in battle suffers from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and related traumatic conditions.

Now, thanks to the opening of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., there is hope for these soldiers to receive the kind of medical treatment they need and deserve.

The 72,000-sf, LEED Silver-rated facility is yet another stirring success for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, a nonprofit foundation that is responsible for building so-called “Fisher Houses” for families to stay in while their service members are being treated in military hospitals.

As is its practice, the IFHF raised $65 million for the outpatient facility, put together the Building Team to design and construct it, and donated the completely equipped facility to the Defense Department—but not before making sure that it would be a global center of excellence for TBI research and treatment.

To attain that standard of excellence, the Building Team—led by SmithGroup (which also designed an IFHF-funded amputee rehabilitation center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.), Turner Construction (GC), and Plaza Construction (owner’s rep)—formed an advisory team of mental health specialists, neurologists, and researchers from the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.

They also engaged a team of patient advocates—active soldiers who suffer from TBI and their family members—who, through focus groups and observation, reviewed and tested every detail of the project, from space planning to materials selection and lighting choices. The goal: treat the whole patient, not just the disease.

For example, the team learned that direct light is harmful and disorienting to TBI patients, so the design provides even levels of natural and indirect light in patient and public areas, with special attention to glare control. TBI patients have a heightened demand for privacy, yet they do not want to feel confined, which led to the use of transom and clerestory windows to open up interior spaces.

Patient advocates also advised that TBI patients and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be disturbed by loud, abrupt sounds, so the Building Team installed a white noise system to dampen such noise, as well as wall assemblies rated STC 50 or higher to provide optimal soundproofing.

The advocates helped with the color palette, too, advising the Building Team to avoid tan (because it reminds soldiers of the sands of Iraq) and metallic gray (reminiscent of weapons).

When the economic downturn cut into the IFHF’s fundraising efforts, the Building Team sliced $25 million in costs by cutting the length of the building 30 feet and lowering its height 2½ feet, without compromising the mission. Building Team firms also donated 12% of their fees to the project and returned $1 million to the owner.

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