Headshot of Charles Bombardier

Charles Bombardier: Combining Behavioral Medicine and Rehabilitation Psychology to Help People with Disabilities

Written by:

Susan Chandler

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When Charles Bombardier looks back on his long career in behavioral medicine and rehabilitation psychology, he says it all started with his high school teacher Mrs. Hagan. As a student in her psychology class, he found it fascinating to learn that happiness is subjective and not dependent on being financially successful or physically attractive. “Our happiness in life is not based as much on our circumstances as it is our perception of those circumstances,” he says.

His plan to become a psychologist wasn’t exactly embraced by his large family in the blue-collar community of Tacoma, Washington. As he progressed through college and then graduate school, his father, an auto repairman, and his mother, a homemaker and secretary for a local union, kept asking him “When will you stop going to school?” Bombardier didn’t let their doubts about his career path discourage him.

Our happiness in life is not based as much on our circumstances as it is our perception of those circumstances

Charles Bombardier Ph.D.

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As a psychology major at the University of Washington in Seattle, Bombardier thought he wanted to be a clinical psychologist but his goal expanded to include research after he worked on a study investigating how animals develop tolerance to alcohol. The results, which concluded that both exposure to alcohol and motor learning were necessary to develop tolerance, were published in the journal Science. Later, he went to Washington State University for his graduate work and became interested in medical aspects of psychology through one of his mentors, Saul Spiro, MD. After finishing his PhD, Bombardier headed east to Duke University in North Carolina for an internship and post-doctoral fellowship in medical psychology. There he worked on a stroke unit and was introduced to rehabilitation medicine.

The experience changed the course of his career. He returned to Seattle in 1989 when he was hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington. Bombardier developed a specialty in substance use disorders in people with disabilities, including brain and spinal cord injuries. He also became the attending psychologist on the inpatient rehabilitation unit at Harborview Medical Center, a public hospital staffed by the university. “There’s some behavioral aspect of just about any disease you can think of,” he says. “Take breast cancer ­– there are all kinds of problems like depression, anxiety and difficulty adhering to treatment regimens. All of those could benefit from psychological care.”

He’s been very helpful in sharing his experience and helping us move the project along.

Linda Ehrlich-Jones, RN, PhD

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Bombardier has also become a prolific researcher in the area of depression in people with disabilities, its diagnosis and treatment. Interestingly, he has found that depression often precedes a patient’s disability and may have even contributed to it through substance use disorders or other negative behaviors. His work has included drug studies, psychological therapy interventions and exercise studies, which looked at whether increasing physical activity can help with depression and cognitive impairment in a range of disorders. “I’ve seen progress. We’re getting better at identifying people with depression and measuring it. And we’ve studied what kind of treatment people with disabilities prefer. In general, they like it to be part of their rehab treatment. If we refer them out to someone, they tend not to show up.”

“Chuck is awesome,” says Linda Ehrlich-Jones, RN, PhD, Associate Director of the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, who collaborated with him on a recent study of how to get spinal cord injury patients to actively engage in physical therapy. “He’s been very helpful in sharing his experience and helping us move the project along.”

Even though Bombardier’s father died almost 30 years ago, he lived long enough to see his son return to his alma mater as a professor and build his own house. “I was so glad he got to see that, because he was worried I had made a terrible mistake,” Bombardier says. “That helped him feel like I had accomplished something with my life.”

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