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Veterans with PTSD Making Great Strides: Part 2, Now

It’s been a busy five and a half years since we’ve last spoken, and until I received the email from Dean at the Arizona Coalition for Military Families, I hadn’t really thought back to our humble beginning and reflected on how far we’ve come.  It’s been a long road filled with a mix of ups and downs, but overall there have been many positives.  

I guess I will start off by updating you on my friend “Jon”.  As you’ll remember, “Jon” and I attended the EMS conference together and through what I learned from the Arizona Coalition for Military Families seminar, I began to help him on his road to learning to live with and recover from PTSD.  “Jon” was the first person I contacted after receiving the email and subsequent phone call from Dean.  “Jon” was pleasantly surprised and excited that you were checking in on his recovery and was 100% on board with me sharing an update on his life.

I sent “Jon” the original story I had submitted which was an account of his early days of recognition and acceptance of his PTSD and how he had begun his road to recovery.  As he was re-reading the essay, the first thing he said was “I forgot I made you write it under an alias.  When you write the addendum, please use my real name.  I could use the publicity.”  So, with that being said – let me introduce you to the real “Jon”, my good friend Patrick Loller and update you on his journey over the past 5 years.  Soon you’ll understand what Pat meant about “use the publicity”.

Pat continued to grow and heal through a variety of therapies, medications and treatment and for a few more months Pat worked as a Paramedic in the city of Hartford.  In late March of 2014, the Hartford EMS community was rocked by the death of one of our own.  Pat’s partner Donovan was struck and killed by a drunk driver while heading into work, just a quarter mile from our headquarters.  Pat was one on the many EMTs and Paramedics that responded to that horrific scene.  Pat was rightfully devastated.  Pat did his best to continue to serve the community as a medic, but the tragic loss of his partner soon proved insurmountable and Pat decided to stop working in emergency services.

Pat’s job loss, the death of his friend and partner, and his perceived loss of purpose sent him on a downward spiral.  He isolated himself from the world.  He lost his fiancée.  He lost his house.  He lost himself.  But, Pat is a fighter – a warrior, and he kept charging ahead and looked for a way out of the negativity.  Pat enrolled at a local state college and began studying acting.  Pat had found his calling – being in front of an audience was his new passion.

Fast-forward to today and you’ll finally understand why I said Pat could “use the publicity”. Pat has left small town Connecticut and currently resides in the Big Apple.  Pat is pursuing a stand-up comedy career and appears in clubs throughout the city.  Pat’s unique comedy style is based on his Military experience and his life after deployment living with and recovering from PTSD.  On Veterans Day, Pat was proud to be a part of a fund raising comedy show that benefitted Mission 22, an organization on the frontlines of Veteran’s Suicide Awareness.

Pat has found comfort and healing through the outlet of comedy and has learned to better live in the grips of PTSD with the help of Transcendental Meditation and medical marijuana.  In the past Pat was on multiple medications from the VA with limited relief, but finally he has seems to have found therapies that work for him.

Regarding the past few years, Pat says, “…it’s been wild.  I’m still trying to figure out my place in the world.  PTSD still wins out sometimes, destroying relationships and all that, but the last 3 months I haven’t had symptoms with my meditation practice, so hopefully I can keep that going.  I plan to make this (Comedy) my career.  I’m the only guy slinging war jokes so I’m turning heads in the city.’’

So if you are even in NYC looking for a few laughs and a dark sense of humor that only someone with Military and EMS experience could pull off, please check out my good friend Patrick Loller!

Pat is not the only one who has made peace with the recognition that he has PTSD, learned to live within it’s grips, and found a new passion over the past 5+ years – so have I.  When I first wrote you, I was unaware that I too was suffering.  “I’m not a Vet.  I’ve never been to war.  Only soldiers get PTSD,” or so I thought.    

In November of 2013, in conjunction with the State of Connecticut Department of Mental Health and the local Vet’s Center, I orchestrated a 2-hour CME at my medical control hospital.  The goal of the original CME was to educated the EMS community on how to best treat a Veteran in crisis.  Jay White, a counselor with the Vet’s Center, provided me with a panel of Veterans who told a packed auditorium about what it’s like to have and live within the grips of PTSD.   The Veterans provided us with a real world glimpse into their lives post deployment - all while giving the EMS providers some helpful tools and tricks to best take care for them if the need arose.  The response to that initial training was overwhelming.  I quickly realized we had presented a unique, original and very necessary training.

Over the next few months I was approach to present at other local hospitals.  I have since developed an ever-changing, interactive PowerPoint presentation and have names our panel and program “EMS and PTSD – Learning from Combat Veterans to Understand PTSD”.  I have continued to work with a few of the original Veteran panelists and have added some additional panel members who are also EMS providers suffering with PTSD.  Initially, I acted only as a moderator of the training, presenting the “damaged” Vets to the audience.  Overtime I began to realize that First Responders, myself included, are all potentially “damaged” - just for different reasons.  The source of the trauma, whether combat or years of EMS, police work, firefighting or dispatching doesn’t matter – the effects are the same.

Our program has morphed and transitioned since our humble beginnings and now encompasses statistics on the epidemic levels of Veteran and First Responder suicides, self care and treatment strategies, tool to help attendees self identify if they are suffering from “burnout” or “PTSD” and if so, suggestions to them places and programs where they can seek help.

We have had the honor to present throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts and as far away as South Carolina.  We have educated hundreds of first responders over the past 5+ years.  We have spoken at initial training classes for EMTs and Paramedic, recertification and continuing education programs for local volunteer and commercial services, SWAT teams, Police Crisis negotiators, Doctors and Hospital staffs throughout the area, a regional trauma conferences hosted by Boston Med Flight, the 2018 EMS Pro Conference in Connecticut and the Swamp Rabbit Conference at USC Medical School.

PTSD awareness and Suicide prevention have become my passion.  It has been a very powerful and rewarding journey.  The benefits of the program have been greater than I ever could have imagined.  Countless providers are now better prepared to treat patients.  They have also learned how to care for themselves and now have the tools to better survive our potentially dangerous careers.  Members of my panel have told me that sharing their stories with others have helped them work through years of repressed anger and thus they no longer have nightmares.  Attendees have followed up with us via email (EMSandPTSD@yahoo.com) or our Facebook Page (Facebook.com/EMSandPTSD) telling us how our presentation has made it “ok” for them to seek help and have begun the healing process.  We someone tells you “I wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t met you.  You do good work – Keep it up.” It makes it all worthwhile.

The last update I wanted to share is my newfound understanding of the power of the love of a dog.  I attended a service dog training class with one of my Veteran buddies who was receiving a dog to assist with his PTSD.  While I was observing the class, the lead trainer Michelle “Shelly” Cote’ sensed that I too was suffering.  She recognized my hyper vigilance, anxiety and avoidance.  She eventually convinced me to adopt one of her available rescue pups she hand picks for the program, and I’ve never looked back!  In fact this “guys that doesn’t need a dog” now has two.  Petey and Velvet are both certified PTSD service dogs and help me in more ways than I can ever put into words.

The training process builds an amazing bond between the handle and the dog.  That bond leads to increased confidence and provides the handler with unconditional love and a purpose.  Having to wake up each day and care for your dog helps get you up and out of the house even on your worst days.  The dogs assist with grounding, watching the backs of their handlers in public, providing a protective “bubble” in crowds and can even wake their handlers from nightmares or night terrors.

I take my dogs everywhere including our presentations.  Petey or Velvet joins me at each of our talks and have become service dog ambassadors of sorts.  To date, more than 30 EMS providers from Connecticut have service dogs from Shelly after attending one of our presentations.  Overall, Shelly and her nonprofit organization Mutts Mending Mankind have rescued more than 300 dogs and their handlers.  MMM provides the Veteran and First Responder their dog, all of the training, and the certification for little to no cost.  The relationship between EMS and PTSD and Mutts Mending Mankind has proven beneficial on a multitude of levels.  The training, awareness and healing through the companionship of a dog has helped too many first responders and veterans to count.

So, as you can see the past 5 years have been one hell of a ride and it all started of a one hours CME at the JEMS Conference.  Where will EMS and PTSD go next – I guess only time will tell.  So again, my heartfelt thanks goes out to you.  You set this ball in motion and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.