November 4, 2010
Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1
At military and veterans' hospitals around the country, dogs are increasingly part of the cure
by Carrie Allan
Sleep—like air and water—is something people rarely think about until they’re unable to get any. Then, abruptly, sleep becomes a grail, its absence anguishing, affecting all elements of an insomniac’s life. Lack of sleep impairs the brain’s ability to learn, to grow, to process thoughts and emotions. And when those emotions are already in turmoil, a human being can experience a perfect storm of trouble.
That storm hit Christopher Hill hard. The Marine staff sergeant had a raft of reasons for the insomnia that began after his first deployment to Iraq in 2003. He’d survived two more tours, all in heavily contested Fallujah, when during his fourth tour of duty in April 2004, his camp was subjected to an insurgent attack. A rocket propelled grenade exploded nearby, killing four people. Hill was thrown into the air and landed on his back on a concrete barrier.
After the initial shock, he thought he was fine. “I figured I was good to go, no bleeding from the ears, no broken bones. I was sore, but I’d gotten kicked up in the air like Charlie Brown, so I figured I was gonna be sore,” he says. But back at Camp Pendleton in California, the longtime bodybuilder was in the gym doing bench presses one day, and when he racked the weights and tried to get off the bench, he couldn’t move.
Tests revealed a spinal cord injury, and Hill, who’s now retired from the service, has been living with constant back and leg pain. Diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he was angry all the time and couldn’t sleep—“I was doing a three-days awake, one-day-crash sort of regimen”—and he’d holed up at home, not wanting to see anyone, lack of sleep feeding his anger and rage fueling his lack of sleep. “I was basically a walking injury.”
Hill was in and out of treatment centers, but none of them seemed to help. A four-month stint at the National Center for PTSD in Palo Alto, Calif., helped for a while, but a few months after Hill left the hospital, he says, he was miserable again. The Marine Corps sent him back to the center.
Hill was not optimistic, “really not wanting to be there, you know, thinking that I’ve failed the first time around and so this is gonna be a waste of time,” he says. But he noticed that the environment at the center seemed a little different on his second visit. And some of the men at his group sessions seemed different, too.
“When a guy has PTSD, he has this look,” Hill says. But in registering each face around him, he saw some anomalies: “It’s sort of scowl, scowl, scowl … no scowl. Scowl, scowl, scowl…no scowl. “I’m like, OK, what’s going on with the guys who really look like they don’t need to be here?”
Hill soon realized what the happier-looking patients had in common: They were the ones with dogs by their side.