Targeting Trauma: Prof. Jeri Morris Researches Combat Brain Injuries
By Courtney Flynn | From the Spring 2011 issue of Roosevelt Review
At a time when a national spotlight is being turned on the issue of military troops suffering serious brain injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq, a Roosevelt University professor with expertise in the field is doing her part to help treat U.S. soldiers.
Jeri Morris, a clinical neuropsychologist with specialized training in cognitive rehabilitation, has developed a screening test designed to help medics traveling to war zones quickly assess soldiers with head injuries, which occur primarily as a result of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Along with Dr. James Young, chairman of Rush University Medical Center’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Morris came up with the test to help determine whether a soldier should be allowed to go back into combat or be sent to a hospital for further treatment. “There are an alarming and horrific number of brain injuries among soldiers because of IEDs,” Morris said. “In the old days, people would say ‘he got his bell rung.’ Now we understand you don’t just ‘have your bell rung,’ you’re losing brain cells.”
The screening test — a series of questions that lasts only seven minutes — is aimed at enabling medics being trained at Rush to determine how badly a soldier has been injured. So far, about 300 medics and physician assistants before going overseas to active war zones have received a week of education in the program called Advanced Trauma Training.
People with head injuries may be able to walk and talk normally, but their ability to remember and make judgments may also be seriously impaired, experts said. More than 300,000 service members are estimated to have experienced a traumatic brain injury or depression during deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a 2008 RAND Corp. study.
Dave Leckrone, a retired colonel with the Army National Guard who serves as a liaison between the military and Rush, said the field test is an important tool that stands out because of its ease of use.
“It can not only be used by medics, but by anybody in the army,” said Leckrone, a Rush consultant. “It’s the only one I know of that can be put in the hands of any soldier and produce results.” Morris and Young’s screening test is easy to administer, reproducible and can be done in the field, Young said. It’s also extremely accurate, he said. Young, who has known Morris for about 20 years, said he teamed up with her because of her clinical work, counseling abilities and extensive experience treating everyone from children to adults.
“It’s much easier for her to understand the test and the application of the test,” Young said. “She has a keen sense of what is normal behavior and what is not.”
While there are other similar tests out there, Morris’ and Young’s test is specifically designed to detect head injuries in a brief amount of time and target the parts of the brain most likely to be affected, she said. In addition, the test does not require any equipment.
“We’re teaching the medics how to understand the effects of brain injury,” Morris said. “They know what they’re looking for and how brain injuries might affect a soldier’s capacity to function in real-life situations, possibly putting at risk that individual or their fellow soldiers.”
In addition to her work on the screening test, Morris is heading up the brain-injury portion of an 18-month grant funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research and development office for the U.S. Department of Defense. The project focuses on web-based approaches to aid the medical and psychological health of military personnel through social networking, gaming technologies, virtual worlds, discussion forums and chat rooms.
“I am the team leader and have invited onto my team prominent psychologists and physicians from around the world who treat head-injured persons,” she said.
Morris’ work involves developing topics and materials for chat rooms visited by soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injuries and their spouses. The chat rooms will be mediated by professional psychologists or physicians.
In her professional career as a clinical neuropsychologist, Morris has conducted more than 15,000 neuropsychological evaluations, treated hundreds of patients with brain injuries and traveled the globe to share her expertise with others. In addition, she has authored dozens of journal articles, book chapters and other publications.
And she considers herself a Roosevelt person from the get-go. Morris’ father, Hy Kipnis, was a member of the first class at Roosevelt in 1945. Morris earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University in 1967, and went on to receive a master’s degree in psychology in 1976. She has been teaching at Roosevelt in various capacities since 1997.
“Education can catapult you into a life of meaning,” Morris said. “We had the benefit of that and that’s because of Roosevelt.”
After receiving her master’s degree, Morris went on to earn a PhD in clinical psychology from the Chicago Medical School. During her postdoctoral residency, she worked at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where she eventually was hired, became a senior psychologist and later worked as a consultant. She also served on the faculty at Northwestern University for a number of years.
In the mid-1990s, Roosevelt’s Psychology Department was in the process of developing its doctoral program and identified neuropsychology as a field it needed to focus on, said Edward Rossini, a psychology professor and former department chairman. Rossini recommended Morris to fill one of two half-time positions in neuropsychology, that has become the fastest-growing area of clinical psychology as increased attention is paid to the country’s aging population, individuals with learning disabilities and athletes and soldiers who suffer from head injuries.
“She clearly is an internationally known clinical psychologist,” Rossini said. “This boundless energy that she has, this creativity, this zest — I thought she would be a perfect fit for Roosevelt and Roosevelt students. It turned out to be true.”
Among her colleagues and friends, Morris has a reputation for being enthusiastic, highly intellectual and passionate about her work. Described as a “little dynamo” by some, Morris packs an uncharacteristically large amount of energy into her 4-foot, 10-inch frame, they say. She also is a very empathetic clinician.
J. Preston Harley, chairman of the brain injury/interdisciplinary special interest group of the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine, said Morris has been so successful in her field because she has had such a long-term commitment to education, research and clinical practice.
“What makes her so good at what she does is that she has a comprehensive understanding of the research and scientific work, and she’s able to clinically put that together when she assesses and treats her patients,” said Harley, who also has his own Naperville practice. “She’s the consummate ethical and professional practitioner.”
In addition to all of her professional achievements, Morris said she also gains much satisfaction from her work with Roosevelt students. She takes pride in helping them to gain internships and post-doctoral fellowships at some of the top educational institutions in the country.
“I feel really good about how these students are developing as future neuropsychologists,” Morris said. “Isn’t it terrific to be a part of that?”
It has been Morris’ own accomplishments that enable her to serve as a role model to her students, her colleagues said. “She’s very caring and she’s very committed to being this all-around professor,” said Lynn Weiner, dean of Roosevelt’s College of Arts and Sciences. “She’s very engaged in what she’s doing, very down-to-earth. She’s the kind of professor we’re lucky to have.”
And while Morris’ days are jam-packed with teaching, lecturing, clinical work and other endeavors, she said she never feels dragged down by being busy. Instead, she said she is energized by it.
“To be able to have a life where you get to help people, wow. What more can you say?” Morris said. “I’m really very, very lucky. What a fortunate life.”