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Hope for Heroes

by Christina Paciolla
A new program connects returning troops with medical professionals for confidential advice.

In his home base of Cherry Hill, Dr. Joe Costabile may be best known as a general and vascular surgeon at Virtua Surgical Group and a trustee of the Medical Society of New Jersey. But he also has another title: captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

That’s one reason that Costabile, who deployed to Kuwait in 2005 and to Iraq in 2008, has been instrumental in the development of a new program, Healers and Heroes. The initiative is designed to link returning Air and Army National Guardsmen and women with medical professionals who have also served in the military or have extensive experience working with the military population.

“Sometimes, soldiers are a little reluctant to go through the regular military chain,” Costabile says. “They feel it will impinge on their ability to be promoted or advanced, or for another deployment.”

That’s where Healers and Heroes—affectionately known as 2H—comes in.

“It’s our job to give them some informal advice and direct them where they need to go,” Costabile explains. The level of involvement varies for each person who calls; it’s up to the patient to determine that. What distinguishes this service from other veterans’ programs is that the information is not on the record.

Administered by the Medical Society of New Jersey (MSNJ) and the New Jersey Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, the confidential service has quietly rolled out statewide over recent months. The need is significant, given that nearly 20 percent of soldiers returning from war zones experience post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury or depression. Many are misdiagnosed, under-diagnosed or even over-diagnosed.

So far, Costabile has seen two patients through 2H. The first one was a member of the Army National Guard from the Cherry Hill area. He had been deployed for some time, Costabile says, and was back in South Jersey when he fell while eating at a local restaurant. After seeking help from a medical clinic at Fort Dix, he was referred to a neurologist—but he wanted Costabile’s opinion of the specialist as reassurance.

“It was a matter of confirming,” the doctor says. “It’s anonymous, it’s informal, and nothing is going on their records. Our job is to get these [people] hooked up in the direction they want to go.”

Other times, it’s offering advice, like instructing a Marine who had been within 25 yards of an explosion to have any residual effects documented in his medical records, so that he’d be able to seek support from Veterans Affairs down the road if necessary.

“We know how the system and the military works, so we know what processes they need to go through, to take care of whatever the issue is,” Costabile explains.

Nationwide, President Barack Obama has been promoting initiatives to help military families, and Daniel Klim, a spokesman for the MSNJ, says local physicians hope 2H will be a key tool for the growing number of veterans in our community who may need someone they can talk to.

“It’s the hope that in that conversation, service members feel better talking to someone in a military uniform and a lab coat,” Klim says. “And, then they can move them in a proper course of treatment.”

Right now, the medical society is still recruiting physicians for the program, which is currently available only to members of the National Guard who have been deployed in the last 18 months.

“It’s in its infancy,” Klim says. “We’re evaluating the program to see where we can take it.”

Currently, clients call in to the medical society offices, and are matched with physicians for meetings either at the doctor’s office or elsewhere. The program is completely private—so private that once the appointment between physician and service member is secured, the MSNJ gets rid of the information.

Brig. Gen. James J. Grant, chief of the joint staff for the New Jersey Army National Guard, says it’s less important to gather that information than to have confidential services in place.

“We can provide a healing mechanism,” Grant says. “It’s absolutely vitally important to get [service members] back on their feet with their families, their civilian occupations and their military.”

Grant says that, since the program launched, he’s been fielding calls from other groups looking to create similar offerings.

“What they are offering is physicians that have served in uniform,” Grant says. “They have a complete understanding of what it’s like to try to return home and lead a normal life. It allows them to connect.”

Photograph courtesy of the U.S. National Guard

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 10 (January, 2012).
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