USFer Sets the Standard for Vet Care

In a coma for 22 days, Christian Dillon '05 beat the odds and now brings therapeutic exercise to former soldiers

By Maura Sullivan Hill, USF News Posted Thu, 02/15/2018 - 17:33

When Christian Dillon ’05 was 18, he suffered a traumatic brain injury when a rival gang member hit him in the head with a crowbar. Dillon was in a coma for 22 days and paralyzed on the left side of his body. Doctors weren’t sure whether he’d wake up, much less walk or talk again.

Today, Dillon is a certified personal trainer and therapeutic recreational specialist for veterans at the San Francisco Veteran Affairs Medical Center (SFVAMC).

“I had to relearn everything — how to feed myself, write, talk, put my clothes on,” says Dillon, who still walks with an abnormal gait from the incident 20 years later. “Exercise has basically saved my life. Without the exercise and persistent rehabilitation, I would not be here today.”

Holistic for the whole person

After working his way back from the brain injury, Dillon enrolled in community college and then transferred to USF, where he chose to major in exercise and sports science (now kinesiology). He received USF’s Stephen Glynn Scholarship and won the James F. Kenney Memorial Award for overcoming obstacles with courage and grace. As a trainer, he shares the transformational benefits of therapeutic exercise with veterans, primarily from the Vietnam and World War II eras but also from Iraq and Afghanistan, as part of a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ strength and wellness program.

Dillon's strength and wellness team collaborates with VA dieticians and psychologists to provide a holistic approach to health through exercise, weight management, and behavior change by emphasizing the mind-body connection through yoga and meditative breathing.

“We are trying to treat the whole individual. Not just the symptoms but rather addressing the physical, mental, and social wellness elements,” said Dillon, a San Francisco native who earned his master’s in recreational therapy at Cal State University East Bay. “We are trying to be comprehensive and improve quality of life overall for these veterans.”

Beyond the physical benefits of attending exercise classes, Dillon sees a social benefit for veterans, many of whom deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic depression, and anxiety.

“A lot of our vets are isolated, so if they can get out to our exercise classes in the community, that’s an additional wellness benefit from the social dimension,” Dillon said. 

‘I've come a long way’

Dillon’s team’s holistic, community-based approach has become a model for other VA programs across the country, winning several national VA awards for outcomes such as helping some veterans lose more than 25 pounds in 10 weeks. It’s also been recognized by the city of San Francisco for improving the quality of life for veterans.

"I’ve come a long way in just eight weeks," says James Carbon, who served in Iraq in 2008-10 and recently suffered a stroke that left him struggling to speak and walk. "I can already climb stairs and reach for things high up in the cabinets. Christian has created such a family-friendly atmosphere, I can't recommend it enough."

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