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Shepherd grad a voice for veterans, caregivers, and better mental health care

ISSUED: 22 May 2014
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens
(Shepherd grad a voice for veterans, caregivers, and better mental health care)

Shepherdstown, WV--Recent Shepherd University graduate Sandy Ownbey wants to make a difference in the emergency room and on Capitol Hill. Along the way she has talked to some pretty important people. But the one who matters most is the one she is married to and nearly lost.

Marine Staff Sgt. James "Jim" Ownbey was a bomb technician deployed to Iraq in 2007 when the vehicle he was riding in ran over an IED which exploded and launched his truck 30 feet in the air. Jim had been knocked unconscious for a few minutes, but was treated and medically cleared to return home to North Carolina on leave two weeks later.

Sandy welcomed home a changed man. Though physically sore he appeared OK, but he had injuries no one could see--post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) that were destroying his body and the life he, Sandy, and their three children had known.

"Honestly, out of all his injuries, the TBI is the hardest one because you look at him and you would think he's normal and everything is fine," Sandy said. "He has good days, and he has really, really bad days which wear the family really thin and wear him thin. It's constant work for him all the time to just feel like he's fitting in with everybody."

Since Jim's return Sandy has been working to get him the best and proper medical care which at times has been difficult. He received treatment at the base hospital in North Carolina but continued to deteriorate. He gained weight, had episodes of rage and memory loss, coughed a lot, and had difficulty breathing because of undetected blood clots in his lungs. Two years after the explosion he was admitted to the ICU with two liters of blood in his lungs and his brain not regulating body functions.

"You think it would have been easy then for them to fly him to a better hospital or drive him, but even that was about a week's worth of fighting and arguing," Sandy said, which resulted in his transfer to Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland, where the doctors ordered him to stay. The Ownbeys relocated to Hedgesville and Sandy enrolled in Shepherd's nursing program while helping Jim manage his medical care and maintaining routine and normalcy for their family as best she could.

In the fall of 2012 Sandy received a call inviting her to participate in a focus group of 20 veteran caregivers to work with former Sen. Elizabeth Dole and her foundation, Caring for Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, whose mission is to uplift American military caregivers by strengthening the services afforded to them through innovation, evidence-based research, and collaboration. Sandy's name had been suggested to Dole because she had been so vocal in pursuing better care for Jim.

The Foundation commissioned a study of 50,000 caregivers by the Rand Corporation which found military caregivers have unique challenges and that despite the need, no national strategy for supporting military caregivers exists.

Sandy has met with her legislative representatives in Washington D.C., to discuss mental health care and caregiver issues. She also met with first lady Michelle Obama, second lady Dr. Jill Biden, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, and Dole at the White House in April for an event which called for support for military and veteran caregivers.

"Michelle Obama was just amazing. She talked to us beforehand and you can actually see that this is an issue that definitely touches her heart," Sandy said.

She hopes that veteran services become streamlined, for a better way to access resources, and that better legislation supporting military caregivers is passed.

"There's just a very big lack of communication, and it's hard to believe in the big electronic age that there are still people out there by themselves taking care of their husbands or wives or sons or daughters and have no idea there's resources to help them," she said.

At Shepherd Sandy connected with one of her professors, Dr. Bonnie Parker, about mental health care and shared her family's story. Parker said she thought Sandy was the ideal candidate for a Foundation fellow.

"What makes Sandy unique and inspiring is, not only does she identify the issues, she is willing to worktoward solving them and has clearly identified paths to facilitate this," Parker said. "I am so proud that she represented the mental health needs of veterans in this manner, not only as a caregiver but as a future nurse."

Sandy graduated May 10 and plans to work in an emergency room as she said she fell in love with it while doing her clinicals in one.

"It's where you usually see people at their lowest of lows. I know that's where we've been, my husband and I, in an emergency room with the lowest of lows," she said. "I would like to make a difference for somebody there. I really would like to do that."

Parker said she had no doubts that Sandy will be successful in her career.

"Sandy has excelled in her leadership skills and is the embodiment of what we promote in our program: excellence in nursing practice. Not only does she demonstrate the core values of nursing, but she clearly demonstrates what we strive for in all individuals who attend Shepherd University--core values of learning, engagement, integrity, and community," she said.

Sandy will likely return to Shepherd to speak to nursing students with her husband about veteran and mental health care issues and to further her nursing education.

"This has been my favorite school that I have ever gone to," she said. "I love this place. I'm going to miss it."

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Sandy Ownbey

The Ownbey family at Sandy's Nursing Honor Society induction ceremony. From left: Jolene, Jim, Logan, Sandy, and James.

Sandy Ownbey at the White House.

Sandy Ownbey at the White House.

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