Ibolja Cernak advocates for change in the military medical system
Professor, University of Alberta, Edmonton
by Alberta Venture Staff
Blast exposure can cause brain injuries with long-term effects for soldiers and veterans. Dr. Ibolja Cernak has dedicated the last 30 years of her life to researching these injuries and helping veterans whose lives have been altered by them. “[Blast injuries] are unique because the damage caused by blast exposure impacts brain structures in a way that is not identical to sports concussions and other impact types of injuries,” Cernak says. She says when soldiers and veterans have difficulty functioning, their symptoms are often treated solely as mental health disabilities. While many veterans struggle with PTSD, they may also be experiencing symptoms as a result of blast impact. Historically, these injuries are under researched and, thus, not diagnosed. Cernak’s research could be the key to helping many veterans experience improved rehabilitation.
Cernak is the chair of the Canadian Military and Veterans’ Clinical Rehabilitation at the University of Alberta. She has an MD, a master’s in biomedical engineering, and a PhD in neuroscience and pathophysiology – and these are just some of her degrees. Before joining the university, Cernak was a medical director and professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Despite her credentials, Cernak’s research hasn’t always been met with open arms. She recalls speaking on the effects of blast exposure at an international conference early in her career. “One doctor stood up in the middle of my presentation and said, ‘You know what, girl? Just stop. It’s nonsense.’” Cernak says advocating for change in the military medical system, even if it means improved care for soldiers and veterans, can be met with resistance. But the backlash hasn’t stopped her.
Cernak hopes her research will improve care. “Perhaps we can gather our resources and develop something better than what today’s soldiers have – better diagnostics, better treatment and better rehabilitation,” she says. For now, she continues to meet with those she’s helping and to pursue her goal of better care for veterans.