PTSD: Vet­eran’s dis­ease?

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - John Ostwald Then + Now John Ostwald is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of psy­chol­ogy at Hud­son Val­ley Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Troy. Email him at jrost­

EDI­TOR’S NOTE: Colum­nist John Ostwald sub­mit­ted daily columns for the week prior to Vet­er­ans Day. The columns cov­ered a va­ri­ety of armed forces is­sues. The in­for­ma­tion in the columns came from in­ter­views with vet­er­ans and fam­ily mem­bers, re­search and John’s per­spec­tive as an ed­u­ca­tor and vet­eran.

I was asked to be on a panel at New York Law School a few months ago. The topic was Post Trau­matic Stress Dis­or­der. When­ever I am asked to speak in pub­lic, I con­tact the or­ga­nizer of the pro­gram to try to get very spe­cific de­tails re­gard­ing what the au­di­ence might want to hear. The con­tact per­son said that he would like me to dis­cuss myths about PTSD. There are many so I de­cided to ad­dress one that has been around for many years. PTSD is of­ten called “the vet­eran’s dis­ease.” It is not “vet­eran’s dis­ease”; it can be any­one’s dis­ease.

Dur­ing my pre­sen­ta­tion I showed some im­ages from the 911, Las Ve­gas and Park­land Florida tragedies then I men­tioned a per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.

My symp­toms of PTSD started about eigh­teen months ago. I have been out of the mil­i­tary for over forty years. My unit was In­shore Un­der­sea War­fare Group II based in Lit­tle Creek, Vir­ginia. Although I trained ex­ten­sively dur­ing the Viet­nam era, I did not serve “in coun­try.” My only time out of the coun­try was spent in Guan­tanamo Bay, Cuba.

The symp­toms came on as a re­sult of wit­ness­ing the af­ter­math of my son’s car ac­ci­dent when he was six­teen years old. His ve­hi­cle flipped and he was un­der­wa­ter for about 12 min­utes. His heart stopped twice and he re­mained in a coma for a few days.

I was out of town when I got the call from the lo­cal po­lice. Af­ter learn­ing that he was un­likely to sur­vive, I called the lo­cal un­der­taker. On the four hour flight home, I wrote his eu­logy and planned his fu­neral ser­vice. It was ap­par­ent to the other trav­el­ers that some­thing was very wrong.

When I ar­rived at the In­ten­sive Care Unit I saw my son —- a life­less fig­ure ly­ing in bed with dried blood on var­i­ous body parts and tubes com­ing out of his nose, mouth, and chest. An oddly shaped de­vice was stick­ing out of the top of his head. I was told later that it was used to mea­sure pres­sure on the brain. I slept in his room for some nights fear­ing that each one would be our last to­gether.

For a few weeks, his mother Pat and I spent 12- 14 hours a day watch­ing and wait­ing and cry­ing and wor­ry­ing on the ICU. Every sound, change in fa­cial ex­pres­sion of the med­i­cal staff, and move­ment caused alarm. One day his fever spiked at 105.4.

Dur­ing the early part of his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, my col­league, Dr. Ed­ward Tick, a na­tional PTSD ex­pert, told me that I was in the acute stage of the dis­or­der.

Dur­ing this pe­riod I had night­mares that most of­ten in­volved death rit­u­als like fu­ner­als. Dur­ing one vivid dream I was kiss­ing my son’s hand just be­fore the cof­fin was closed for the last time. I had flash­backs to the early weeks of his time in the In­ten­sive Care Unit. I saw the tubes in his mouth, nose, and un­der his arms. I saw the dried blood on his head, hands and arms. Most prom­i­nent was the look of ter­ror and con­fu­sion in his eyes af­ter he woke up from the coma.

I used to think that he and I would be killed in a car crash. I had in­ter­mit­tent sui­ci­dal thoughts. On some nights I would jump out of bed be­cause I thought I heard him call to me from his room down­stairs. I ir­ra­tionally thought that I will find him dead in his room when there was no dan­ger of that hap­pen­ing. Once in a while a pro­foundly pow­er­ful feel­ing of dread and grief swept over me and I got anx­ious and cried. I of­ten said to my­self, “There is some­thing wrong with me.”

De­spite th­ese and other symp­toms I am do­ing well. I know how to take care of my­self emo­tion­ally and the time (30 months) has helped. Jack­son is do­ing very well also as he re­cov­ers from a trau­matic brain in­jury.

Trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences can hap­pen to any­one and they come in a va­ri­ety of ways. It is ob­vi­ously im­por­tant to pur­sue heal­ing proac­tively.

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