A University of Minnesota medical student’s curiosity about Gulf War Illness has resulted in an influential paper and attention to a veteran population that has felt marginalized for decades.
Dr. Nicole Baldwin interviewed 30 veterans who have met the diagnostic criteria for GWI and discovered that — 28 years after the Gulf War — they feel misunderstood and underserved by doctors and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“They’ve had this disease for about 25 years at this point and nobody has been able to characterize it or manage it well,” said Baldwin, who earned her medical degree this spring.
Her results, published this month in the Federal Practitioner journal, underscored GWI’s complexity. Nineteen veterans reported stomach symptoms while 16 mentioned memory and cognition issues. Fourteen reported rashes while 13 suffered joint pain and 12 endured chronic fatigue.
Researchers have studied whether GWI was caused by environmental exposures such as nerve gas, vaccines, smoke inhalation, insecticides, or a combination of them. A leading theory is that these exposures triggered overactive immune systems, which then caused the range of symptoms.
Ronald Bach, a researcher at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, has tested whether steroid treatment tamps down the immune system and the associated symptoms of GWI.
Baldwin’s findings offered a reminder that veterans need help now, while the search for cures continues, said Bach, who co-authored the paper. More than half of the surveyed veterans said their caregivers didn’t understand GWI and that a few denied its existence.
“She has given voice to the concerns of veterans about VA deficiencies in the diagnosis and treatment of Gulf War Illness,” he said.
Baldwin will present her findings at the Minneapolis VA on Thursday. She will pursue a neurology residency in Miami.
Baldwin was motivated in part by her father, a surgeon who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, which is similar in some ways to GWI. She said the VA should create multisymptom GWI clinics, because doctors might do better at treating veterans together rather than treating their symptoms one at a time.
“The veterans do need more,” she said, “and there is more than can be done.”