ECU doctoral student Dominiquie Clemmons-James, right, and recreational therapy administration graduate student Tori Pinchuk demonstrate the biofeedback equipment used in the ECU Center for Applied Psychophysiology. ECU faculty and students use biofeedback at the center to assist wounded warriors in recovering from invisible injuries. (Photo by Jay Clark)

ECU center helps wounded warriors recover from invisible injuries

April 8, 2014

By Kathy Muse
College of Health and Human Performance

Soon after U.S. Navy Corpsman Dustin “Doc” Kirby returned home from Iraq, he began to experience the disturbing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

He turned to East Carolina University for help, referred to the university by the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville.

Kirby is one of many wounded warriors who have sought help from the ECU Center for Applied Psychophysiology, led by Carmen Russoniello, director and professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies in the College of Health and Human Performance.

“That program saved my life,” Kirby said. “It gave me the tools I needed to help myself instead of just numbing the pain and pushing it away.”

Technology for health

The center uses an innovative combination of gaming technology and biofeedback techniques to help U.S. military personnel recover from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Biofeedback training helps clients gain control over their nervous system using signals from their own bodies that are recorded and displayed graphically or numerically on a computer screen.

“The biofeedback products help wounded warriors easily measure and train their physiology, resulting in greater control and decreased symptoms,” said Russoniello.

“We also are developing mobile health measurement and biofeedback products that can be deployed …to analyze and transmit physiological data from remote locations as well as to facilitate biofeedback training. We develop products for the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps,” he said.

“The Center has demonstrated that biofeedback and a psychophysiological approach can make dramatic improvements in Marines post deployment and we will now expand to investigate the potential for pre-deployment, deployment for Marines and all military personnel,” said Dr. Glen Gilbert, dean of the College of Health and Human Performance.

ECU professor Dr. Carmen Russoniello, front, oversees work by then ECU student Holly Paton (now a graduate), at right. Paton was working with wounded warrior Aaron Elliott.
“This will have implications for anyone facing stress which, of course, means all of us,” said Gilbert. “The continued growth of the Center will enhance ECU’s recognition as a national leader in the emerging approaches to stress management.”

Success stories

Kirby’s journey to healing has been long but successful. His physical injuries required 32 surgeries and corrective procedures. His invisible wounds led to four years of treatment at ECU. He is now attending college, starting a family and “grabbing as much of life as possible,” he said.

Sgt. Aaron Elliott has also seen progress after working with the center. He has been in treatment with the program about a year, seeking help for symptoms related to a traumatic brain injury from multiple concussions. Elliott served in Kuwait and experienced more than a dozen deployments in Iraq.

“The biofeedback and breathing techniques that I have learned have lowered my anxiety and blood pressure,” Elliott said. The staff at the center explained the biofeedback techniques so he could use them at home.

“I have not had the severe chest pains that are debilitating in almost a year,” said Elliott.

Sgt. Christopher Soldana experienced both traumatic brain injury and severe PTSD. He served 13 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including three deployments to Iraq.

During biofeedback, a cap measures brain activity and a pulse oximeter attached to the finger measures the saturation of oxygen in the blood. The information helps patients gain control over their own nervous system.
On one of those tours, his combat vehicle sustained multiple explosions. “We were inside the vehicle and were bounced around like a pinball,” said Soldano.

Following his third tour, “I had little or next to no ability to verbally communicate well.

Everything was cloudy and hard to comprehend,” he said.

“The program at ECU was an excellent experience. It was a great stepping stone for me to be able to utilize to get back into a semblance of a normal life.”

Collaboration across disciplines

The work at the center pulls staff from multiple disciplines such as marriage and family therapy, recreational therapy, rehabilitation counseling and administration and includes both faculty and students. Undergraduate and graduate students train to provide biofeedback services and conduct research to augment the science of psychophysiology.

ECU doctoral students Dominiquie Clemmons-James and Matt Fish are among the students providing support at the center. Both are majoring in rehabilitation counseling and administration in the College of Allied Health.

“I fell in love with the science, passion and culture that exists in the center,” said Fish. “The best thing about biofeedback is that anyone can use it for his or her health.”

ECU doctoral student Matt Fish said he enjoys helping patients through biofeedback.

“My goal is to bridge the two worlds of biofeedback and counseling,” said Clemmons-James, who is a licensed counselor.

“I would like to bring biofeedback and counseling to people who would not normally do counseling.”

She said biofeedback is very hands on and simple to grasp. “We give them a technique like diaphragmatic breathing and teach them to hone that technique to help them control how they are feeling physiologically,” she explained.

ECU recreational therapy administration graduate student Tori Pinchuk is shadowing Clemmons-James this semester, learning from watching the therapy in action.

“Our goal is to restore balance of the client’s autonomic nervous system,” she said.

The work in Greenville is extended when the students travel weekly to the Wounded Warrior Barracks at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville to work with clients there.

The ECU center grew out of a wounded warrior program that began in 2008 in the College of Health and Human Performance. It officially became the Center for Applied Psychophysiology in December 2013.

Dr. Deb Jordan, chair of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, noted that the center provides benefits in multiple ways including opportunities for ECU students to acquire hands-on experience in helping clients.

“These are unique opportunities that will not only provide direct services to individuals in need, but will also educate and train future professionals and scientists,” she said.

“The work of the center will have a long-term ripple effect across the region and state.”

ECU is supporting partnerships with the military and conducting clinical research across disciplines to address resiliency, rehabilitation and reintegration of military personnel, veterans and their families through  a multimillion dollar grant from the Department of Defense to ECU for Operation Re-Entry North Carolina.