11/11/2011 12:35 EST | Updated 01/11/2012 05:12 EST

Research at University of Alberta to focus on rehab needs of wounded soldiers

CALGARY - Cpl. Mark Fuchko thought his life was over when he lost both of his legs below the knee after he drove over an improvised explosive device in 2008 while on patrol in southern Afghanistan.

Now, at age 27, fitted with a pair of titanium prosthetic legs and living with his family in Calgary, he has shown an amazing resiliency that saw him join several soldiers in a successful climb of Mount Kilimanjaro.

But Fuchko, a member of King's Own Calgary Regiment, found it difficult when he was first transferred from Germany's Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre — the biggest American military hospital in Europe — to Alberta. Suddenly, he was receiving his rehabilitation in a civilian medical facility.

"When I was at another hospital they treated me like I was some idiot who got drunk in a car accident and they didn't have a whole lot of sympathy for me," Fuchko in an interview with The Canadian Press. "That really affected my mindset. It really affected my family and ... it affected the quality of care I thought I was getting."

So something was done.

"The military said, 'OK, we have to get you in an environment where they are kind of used to dealing with these issues and are a lot more sympathetic. You're coming from a war zone back to Canada and that's not easy for anybody.'"

Fuchko, a recipient of the Sacrifice Medal, found what he needed at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, which has a history of treating wounded soldiers. He also got peer support through the Canadian Forces 'Soldier On' program which encourages rehabilitation through sport.

"We're kind of our own mini subculture where we almost speak a different language. We're a different group and we have a different way of doing things," Fuchko said.

Recognizing the needs of injured soldiers led the University of Alberta to create The Canadian Military and Veterans Chair in Clinical Rehabilitation this year. It's hoped its research will help fill a void in how Canada deals with injured veterans.

"Canada is very typical of most NATO countries in having a publicly funded health-care system. When someone is injured, either during training or when they're serving abroad, they come back to the publicly funded system. It's perfectly appropriate, very high-quality care," explained faculty dean Martin Ferguson-Pell.

In the United States the government created the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide patient care and federal benefits to veterans and their dependants. The American body deals only with military personnel and has also set up research centres across the United States.

"When you go to Walter Reed Medical Center (Bethesda), one thing that immediately strikes you is they're surrounded by other soldiers who are either injured or visiting," said Ferguson-Pell. "There is this saturation of military culture within the hospital setting. That's enormously supportive for those guys because it's what they're used to."

He said that kind of support for Canadian troops is lacking.

"The research we do in Canada is essentially integrated into the great big pot of research funding that we have academics compete for. What we don't have is ring-fenced funding that enables us to focus on particular needs that we have for Canadian Forces veterans and their families."

Ferguson-Pell said public health care tends to treat an injured soldier the same way as someone who has been injured in a construction accident or lost a leg due to diabetes.

Injured veterans facing rehabilitation have different needs.

"Lets face it. A person in the Canadian Forces in many cases is like an elite athlete, a very motivated person, really keen to get back into their former role ... and very keen to get back into action," he said.

The senior research scientist chosen for the new chair is expected to be announced next month and should begin research by next summer. Twenty-six candidates from around the world have applied.

Ferguson-Pell said research could delve into traumatic brain injuries and recovery, combat injuries or advances in prosthetics.