Working Together News

Lifesaving Care for Returning Military

Several years into the war in Southwest Asia, the National Jewish Health lung line started receiving phone calls from returning military personnel complaining of major respiratory symptoms.

While evaluating the military deployers, doctors realized that these men and women were reporting high numbers of hazardous exposures. Their experiences often included dense dust storms, dark smoke plumes from burn pits, heavy aircraft and vehicle exhaust and combat dust from explosions and mortar attacks.

“We started to try and understand what the hazard exposures were and what people’s symptoms are due to, and what we found is that people who deploy to these environments are at a high risk for developing asthma and bronchiolitis,” said pulmonologist Dr. Cecile Rose, who serves as the Director of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at National Jewish Health.

“Where there are these inhalation hazards, military deployers are nearly twice as likely to report respiratory symptoms.”

Just 10 years ago there was no information about deployment-related lung symptoms in any medical or scientific literature. When National Jewish Health began seeing these results, the team reached out to active duty military physicians, the veterans’ administration, geological surveyors, scientists, physicians, epidemiologists and other research facilities to investigate this new problem.

Creating the Program

Finding reoccurring patterns, National Jewish Health applied to the Department of Defense to fund further analysis. In 2016, the hospital received $11.5 million for their deployment-related lung disease research.
With this grant, National Jewish Health is investigating cellular and molecular mechanisms of lung injury, searching for noninvasive tests for diagnosis, identifying individual risk factors for lung conditions and developing targeted treatments.

 “I am very proud of the program, and I’m very impressed with the people who have agreed to participate in the research,” said Dr. Rose. “This particular group of people are eager to get answers and help their brothers and sisters who are in the military. This is not a group of people who are over emphasizers of their symptoms. They are not complainers. It takes a great deal of strength to ask for help.”

In fact, the biggest complaint about their respiratory symptoms is that they aren’t able to pass the physical test to continue being deployable or active duty. “These people who had planned careers in the military, feel like ‘I’m willing. I want to do this. This is my plan. This is my goal. This is my identity. This is my future.’ And it’s a real loss,” explains Dr. Rose.

More than 200 patients have already been treated at the Center for Deployment Related Lung Disease at National Jewish Health. Each patient is evaluated by a team of specialists and given an individualized treatment plan based on their diagnosis and the severity of their lung disease.

Looking to the Future

Unfortunately, it is unknown how many people have been effected by deployment-related lung disease, but Dr. Rose is optimistic that the next 10 years will bring answers to many of their questions. She believes that the community is becoming more and more interested in the program as an important area for research.
 According to Dr. Rose, “We’re well placed to understand this, to diagnose this, and to help people, but we have a ways to go."