Alberta Legion Backs Long-Term Health Study

July 30, 2013 by Sharon Adams
Dr. Ibolja Cernak. [PHOTO: Sharon Adams]

Dr. Ibolja Cernak.
PHOTO: Sharon Adams

It’s a Friday and no coincidence that Dr. Ibolja Cernak is dressed in red. Her quest for knowledge to improve the lot of injured soldiers has taken her from academe in Europe, to the battlefields of Kosovo, to one of the most respected research universities in the United States, and finally, 18 months ago, to Canada. Supporting troops has been a lifelong habit. 

As chair of the Canadian Military and Veterans’ Rehabilitation Research Program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Cernak is excited to have a chance at “building something which is still not existing, neither here in Canada, nor in the world.” She envisions a database that tracks changes in troops’ health throughout their lives, documenting what happens to their bodies while they’re plying their dangerous profession—and afterwards.

But this is not research that will sit on a shelf and followed up someday—it’s meant to be put to immediate use to improve health care for veterans and serving members of the military. Researchers are already lining up to mine the motherlode of data. Their work will provide better treatments, better diagnosis, better prevention, more effective rehabilitation.

Alberta-Northwest Territories Command of The Royal Canadian Legion has provided $267,000 in funding for the research program. “This is exciting stuff,” said command Executive Director Tammy Wheeler.  “It’s not just pure science,” said Wheeler, “It’s about the person, their families and their communities. And it’s about the future, about making sure we know as much as we can so that we don’t have to see these people come back and dealing with the issues they’re dealing with today.”

Baseline data is being collected on a thousand Canadian Armed Forces combat troops before training. Data will be collected again during and after training and deployment and at intervals throughout their military careers.  “Our plan is that we actually follow these individuals throughout their military career, including transitioning to civilian population and while being veterans.”

As troops go through their careers, some will be shot or exposed to blasts or injured. Some will develop back problems, mental health problems, concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. After retirement, some will develop chronic health conditions. “We will know their status before those problems developed…what is normal for that individual. We will see how that biological condition develops.” Cernak is excited by possibilities to develop protective gear and medicines to stave off some injures, sensitive diagnostic measures to identify worsening conditions at their earliest stages, and evidence of which treatments work best at different stages of healing.

The data could also give veterans a heads-up about post-military health risks. Veterans exposed to many mild blasts might be educated about risk of developing PTSD and be more alert for early symptoms. Those with a high risk of back problems or osteoarthritis might be steered away from post-military careers in oil rig work to something less stressful on the joints.

Although Cernak says this is science for soldiers’ sake, the civilian world will benefit from the research as well, for some findings will also apply to firefighters, police, emergency medical responders and those in high risk occupations in the oil industry and mining. That also appealed to the Legion, said Wheeler. “We have an opportunity to support something that will trickle down to the general population, something that could benefit everyone.”

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