on June 10th, 2015 1 Comment
In 2012, President Obama issued an Executive Order calling for better prevention, diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions. Third-year doctoral student Russell Toll is one of many who is doing research in these areas, and he brings a unique perspective to his work: He’s both a bioengineer and an Army combat veteran.
In 2006, Toll was in charge of a combined tank and infantry platoon stationed in the Diyala River Valley, about an hour northeast from Baghdad, Iraq.
His unit deployed with 14 tanks; they came back with four. Within 15 months, 28 men in his batallion were killed and 132 were severely wounded. A third of his men earned the Purple Heart and his unit — the 1-12 CAV in the 1st Cavalry Division — earned the Valorous Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism.
Now, Toll is working with his graduate advisor, Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, to identify biomarkers associated with TBI and PTSD. Toll and Etkin will discuss their work at the West Coast preview of the film “Searching for Home: Coming Back from War” next Saturday, June 20, at Stanford’s Cubberley Auditorium.
Recently, I spoke with Toll to learn more about his experience in Iraq and his research.
How did your experience in Iraq inform your understanding of PTSD?
As a platoon leader, all of your thoughts and efforts are focused on keeping your unit safe and getting them home. Only after you get home and decompress do you realize how much [weight] you were carrying.
This is a common experience for many soldiers and people that have lived through a traumatic experience.
At what point in your military career did you become interested in bioengineering and research on TBI and PTSD?
The pivotal point was in 2009 when I visited Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] to check in on my men. The care they received at the center was excellent, but some of the equipment and technology that was being used to diagnose and treat them seemed like it hadn’t changed since Vietnam.
When I returned to my hotel room at night, I found myself drawing up ways we could address this problem on the backs of napkins. I have a bachelors degree in systems engineering from West Point, and I decided to apply these skills as a graduate student in bioengineering.
What was it like to come to Stanford after spending 15 months in Iraq?
It was a stark transition from the Army to Stanford; I felt like I had just climbed off the tank and stepped straight into systems biology. It sounds funny, but in a way I was able to apply my military training to my graduate studies: I developed cooperative relationships with the “indigenous experts” so I could get help from my classmates. As evidenced by my friends, I’m good at surrounding myself with excellent people. Their tutoring, coaching and friendship — especially that of Shrivats Iyer — was a major reason I was able to make it this far.