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A Team Effort

UB leads the way in treating wounded soldiers and vets

Navy veteran Michael Sformo at the Buffalo Sabres training facility.

Navy veteran Mike Sformo at the Buffalo Sabres training facility. Photo: Douglas Levere

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

“If the local VA hospital has 12 wounded soldiers but can treat only 10, we’ll take the extra two.”
Michael Sformo, Founder and CEO, Operation Backbone

Traumatic brain injury (TBI)—a sudden, forceful trauma to the brain—has become the “signature wound” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From 2000 through 2012, more than 250,000 military personnel sustained TBIs, resulting in a host of chronic health problems among returning vets, from depression to neuromotor impairments. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to meet demand, but given the sheer number of wounded soldiers—and the complexity of their injuries—it hasn’t been easy.

Now top medical experts from UB and around the country are teaming up to help fill in the gaps. Operation Backbone, a Buffalo-based nonprofit formed in 2012, is working to create a nationwide network of care centers that will offer not only advanced brain and spinal surgery but also post-op rehabilitation, partially through a partnership with the NHL, to active-duty soldiers and veterans in need.

The idea is to work in conjunction with existing VA hospital care. “If the local VA hospital has 12 wounded soldiers but can treat only 10, we’ll take the extra two,” says Operation Backbone’s founder, Michael Sformo, a Navy veteran and Western New York native. Here’s the best part: Care will be offered at no cost to patients, with all treatments being funded through private donations and corporate sponsorships.

One of the primary partners in Operation Backbone is UB, where radiologists and surgeons in the Department of Neurosurgery and at Roswell Park Cancer Institute have been donating their time to develop the program, including formulating a plan to screen patient cases and helping to grow the network (to date, Harvard Medical School, the University of Pittsburgh, Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point have all signed on in various capacities). “Their guidance has been critical,” says Sformo of the UB team, which includes Elad Levy, chair of the neurology department, along with colleagues Adnan Siddiqui and Ken Snyder.

The UB team will also be the first to start taking patients, both locally and from around the country, later this summer. In addition to surgery, patients will have access to cutting-edge imaging services at the Gates Vascular Institute in downtown Buffalo, and to strength and nutritional training from the Buffalo Sabres at their downtown headquarters. The NHL partnership is also something that Sformo hopes to expand, with a goal of bringing Operation Backbone into the remaining 29 NHL cities.

“It’s an entire community of support,” says Snyder. “That is the key to the healing.”