For a career dedicated to improving the lives of others, East Carolina University professor Carmen Russoniello has been presented the 2015 Governor James E. Holshouser, Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Service by the University of North Carolina system.
The prestigious award annually recognizes public service by faculty of the 17 UNC-system institutions. Underscoring its commitment to service, East Carolina is the only university to receive the honor three times since it was first awarded in 2007. ECU’s two previous Holshouser Award winners were Lessie Bass, social work, in 2008 and Thomas G. Irons, pediatrics, in 2011.
“I’m awed by all that Governor Holshouser accomplished as a public servant and truly humbled to be recognized in his honor,” Russoniello said. He accepted the award Oct. 30 during the monthly Board of Governors’ meeting in Chapel Hill.
“One of the most important charges we have as an institution is service to our constituents. Dr. Russoniello embodies this spirit of service,” ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard said. “His work to improve the lives of people from all walks of life makes us proud as a university and grateful as citizens of North Carolina.”
Russoniello’s contributions have spanned decades, beginning with his service as a Marine Corps machine gunner and decorated Vietnam combat veteran. He has since focused on the use of recreation therapy in the form of biofeedback and gaming as an alternative to medicine for people with stress-related medical disorders, including veterans and victims of Hurricane Floyd.
“At ECU, we do value service. I’m a clinician, and as a clinician, I’m always looking for ways to help people,” Russoniello said. He has more than 20 years of clinical experience as a therapist/counselor and works as scientific advisor to Biocom Technologies.
He spends most of his time as professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies in the College of Health and Human Performance and director of ECU’s Center for Applied Psychophysiology.
“The interesting thing about service is that no one would ever really get recognized if it wasn’t for all the other people who assist in those endeavors; so, in this case, our students,” Russoniello said. “The need is very great, and we have a lot of great students. They want to give back – they just don’t know how to do it. It’s such a human, innate quality – to want to give back.”
Addressing Injuries of Veterans
Severe anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and uncontrollable thoughts are all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
The prevalence of PTSD among previously deployed Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom service members is 13.8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Traumatic brain injuries are also common in veterans and are similarly incapacitating.
Russoniello knows this all too well; he developed PTSD after losing a mentor, friend and fellow machine gunner in his infantry platoon during the Vietnam War.
Years later, the experience would spark what he described as a “passion to determine the underlying physiological therapeutic benefits of recreation or fun activities.” Once he put his finger on that, he knew he would be able to use it to help people cope in significant ways.
Biofeedback technology turned out to be a big piece of the puzzle. “I became totally enamored by the efficacy of this non-pharmacological intervention and began to use it as my main intervention and measurement tool,” Russoniello said.
Biofeedback is the ability to view one’s nervous system on a screen – graphically and numerically – based on the signals sent by the human body when exposed to soothing or stressing sounds, images and other stimuli. “Biofeedback gives people the skills and they become empowered to improve their own health,” Russoniello said.
He opened a biofeedback lab at ECU in 2000 and has been providing free services to residents of eastern North Carolina ever since. Using biofeedback in combination with recreational gaming, Russoniello has proven significant advances in the treatment of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
In 2006, a program director from Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville asked him for help with treating Wounded Warrior Marines as they transition back into civilian life. Russoniello met some of the service men and women and saw himself in them.
“I realized that they, like me 40 years earlier, were in the middle of a very difficult transition that could determine whether they were successful or not,” he said.
It was a no-brainer. He described the request as what he “had been preparing for (his) whole life.”
Soon, a partnership formed between Russoniello’s biofeedback lab at ECU and the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East at Camp Lejeune. It has since improved the lives of hundreds of veterans who sacrificed greatly for the nation.
“That program saved my life,” said U.S. Navy Corpsman Dustin “Doc” Kirby. “It gave me the tools that I needed to help myself instead of just numbing the pain and pushing it away.” After four years of treatment in ECU’s biofeedback lab, Kirby was able to attend college and start a family.
Sgt. Christopher Soldano is another of many success stories from what is now called the ECU Center for Applied Psychophysiology. He served three combat tours in Iraq as a U.S. Marine and came back severely altered.
He said his life was changed for the better after meeting Russoniello. “He was able to take his own experiences and knowledge and relate to me in a way that allowed me to accomplish things I never thought I would accomplish again,” Soldano said. “It is because of his skills that I am able to manage myself and my life even better than before my injuries.”
The center also offers a graduate certificate in biofeedback and trains students from numerous health care fields including nursing, psychology, counseling, medicine and recreational and occupational therapy.
“I actually think that’s the key to being successful in doing service – finding those areas where the community benefits, the students benefit and the university benefits,” Russoniello said. “It’s a win-win-win situation.
Research for Good
In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd devastated eastern North Carolina. Russoniello had just accepted an assistant professor position at ECU when he received a call from a social worker at an elementary school in Tarboro. Their school and many of their homes had been destroyed, and the fourth and fifth graders were distraught.
“It was right about the time they were learning to trust their environment when it was just totally ripped away from them,” Russoniello said of the children.
The researcher in Russoniello saw an opportunity to make something positive of the devastation. He would counsel the students using coping activities such as games, and in the process, learn more about PTSD in children following natural disasters – a first-of-its-kind study.
They found that 73 percent of the children had moderate to severe symptoms of PTSD. He and his ECU students drove the 60-mile round trip twice a week for two years to see it through.
Their stress intervention techniques worked, resulting in a reduction of PTSD symptoms 11 percent faster during the time they delivered services than with no intervention. His study has since been cited in many top-level publications, government reports and epidemiological analyses.
“What was then called Pop Games, now known as EA Sports, basically called me and said, ‘We’re making so much money and can’t figure out why,’” Russoniello said with a laugh. “They had tapped into something huge and didn’t know how they did it.”
His groundbreaking studies were featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, BBC and CNN. His research had proven that biofeedback principles woven into casual video games made them therapeutic.
Russoniello has since created four smartphone apps for the U.S. Department of Defense using the phone’s camera as a sensor for biofeedback.
But he didn’t stop there. With another Department of Defense grant in 2012, Russoniello developed a revolutionary tool for service members during combat: a wireless ear clip which collects sophisticated stress data in remote locations so that professionals can analyze it instantly.
“The original idea was that a corpsman could use the system when a Marine went down to collect information and send it to an administrator in a HIPAA-compliant system,” Russoniello said.
They’ve since found more potential applications for it. “We may eventually be able to predict and even prevent conditions such as PTSD in Marines using data before, during and after deployment,” Russoniello said.
Russoniello’s personal story makes his contributions perhaps even more remarkable.
He was raised by a single parent in an impoverished area of Scranton, Pennsylvania. By his teenage years, he was living part-time on the streets and getting into trouble with the law. He dropped out of school by the 10th grade and joined the Marine Corps at 17, returning from his Vietnam deployment with no education, skills or direction.
He was soon homeless, working odd jobs at an oil rig and picking fruit.
Encouragement from friends and counselors eventually led him to take a few classes at a community college.
“For me, education was a ticket to make something of myself,” he said. “I realized I could be successful at something that could help me build a career.”
He completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington. While working as a recreational therapist in a local hospital, he earned his doctorate at Gonzaga University.
Russoniello said he hopes his early life experiences illustrate the importance of hard work and dedication.
“Because I came from ‘there’ and have experienced some success, I believe I add confidence to the notion that anyone can make it if they work hard and stay focused on being the best they can be,” he said.
By Kelly Setzer, ECU News Services
Published October 30, 2015