- Associated Press - Saturday, June 14, 2014

CHESTER, Conn. (AP) - As Kara Gagnon worked to diagnose vision problems associated with traumatic brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans several years ago, she saw another need.

Gagnon, then an optometrist with the Veterans Hospital in West Haven, noticed that some of the patients’ caregivers, often young wives, who waited outside of her office “were exhibiting a high level of stress.”

She realized the caregivers themselves were often shouldering larger responsibilities and challenges, as they dealt with the effects of brain injuries or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in their loved ones.

“Their names and faces are emblazoned in my brain,” she said about the families.

Gagnon, who grew up in Old Saybrook and now resides in Chester, decided she had to help.

She recently founded Peace of Mind Brain Injury Services for BraveMinds, a nonprofit organization, to build a community of support. She plans to open a wellness center in Milford later this month to offer mental and physical health services to veterans and their families. Eventually, Gagnon, an associate clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine, aims to open an eye clinic there too and wellness centers across the country.

Michael Osten of Norwich, a U.S. Army veteran who works full-time as an outside machinist at Electric Boat, met Gagnon 3½ years ago during an eye exam at her clinic. He said she helped guide him to the doctors who could treat the effects of a traumatic brain injury he suffered during his service 26 years ago.

Osten said Gagnon helped him see that he could work through his disabilities to realize his full potential.

“From the moment I met her, I really felt she was a person I could trust and who really cared about me as a person and a veteran,” he said.

He said it was also important that she involved his whole family in the medical process.

“She always sat down and explained it to me,” said his wife, Maria.

Maria said it was important to realize how an illness, such as traumatic brain injury, can affect all members of the family, including children.

“You need the whole family to heal,” said Maria.

Gagnon’s journey began nearly 10 years ago, when she pored over medical journals in anticipation of the veterans who would visit her office after returning home.

She realized that they would face a multitude of health issues - from short-term memory problems to post-traumatic stress disorder.

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