Dr. Joseph Bleiberg and NRH’s pioneering brain injury program took center stage on June 13 at the 21st annual John W. Goldschmidt Award lecture. Bleiberg, recipient of the 2008 Goldschmidt Award for Excellence in Rehabilitation, was lauded for “all his efforts and for all of his remarkable body of work in brain injury,” said Edward Eckenhoff, NRH President and CEO. Bleiberg, who had been a colleague of Eckenhoff’s at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, was initially recruited in 1985 to build NRH’s psychology department. As one of the hospital’s first staff members, Bleiberg was responsible for creating a stellar clinical department — as well as a very productive research program.
“It is a special pleasure to review and focus on the breadth of his career,” Medical Director Dr. Edward Healton told the crowd. “Joe spent years caring for patients, and during the last few years has concentrated on research. He has had a very productive and prolific career.”
Bleiberg shaped the hospital’s brain injury program and its Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and is published widely in prestigious journals. But as several NRH staff underscored, it has been his unique blend of curiosity, creativity and compassion that has made him a standout psychologist, rehabilitation expert — and friend — for more than three decades.
While he acknowledged that summing up a 30-year career in an hour was a Herculian task, Bleiberg’s remarks highlighted changes in attitudes and rehabilitative approaches in brain injury — in particular mild brain injury — during the last two decades.
“In 1990, we began writing about mild brain injury when very few people were interested,” Bleiberg said. “There were no grants, no money. It was seen as a self-limiting disorder; no disease really to treat.”
Today, in large part because of Bleiberg's research, people recognize the risks associated with mild brain injury and the long-term problems that repeated concussion can cause, especially among athletes and people in combat. The U.S. military has been a strong supporter of Bleiberg’s research, which includes the development of software for cognitive evaluations that can quickly be administered using computers and hand-held devices — which have been used in combat.
Bleiberg’s latest initiative is a collaborative effort with the Washington D.C. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Montgomery College. Called C2C (Combat 2 College), this innovative program has been developed to help today’s combat veterans make the successful transition to college.
“One day they are on the streets of Baghdad and the next, they are in a classroom,” Bleiberg said. “There used to be time for transition. But now these young people get off a plane and jump right back into their lives.”
C2C addresses the unique needs of these returning vets, especially those suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and provides significant services to not only students, but to faculty and staff, as well. And because it leaves a “small foot print” by making small adjustments to existing college activities and resources requiring few new expenses or acquisitions, C2C can be easily replicated in community colleges throughout the country.
“Inclusiveness is very important in C2C and we are striving to erase the stigma some of these young people feel,” Bleiberg said. The program is working hard to help veterans integrate successfully into college life.
“We emphasize the positives in their military experience — their knowledge and discipline,” he said. “And we show respect and appreciation. The best thing we can say to these veterans is ‘thank you and welcome home.’”
Bleiberg’s own colleagues said “thank you” to him for his years of dedicated service with the Goldschmidt Award plaque, a financial gift and lots of hugs and gratitude.