Friday, December 3, 2010

Old War Wounds

Yesterday was a very interesting day in Student Clinic. I shadowed a practicing acupuncture student, for whom I have a lot of respect. Both patients yesterday were war veterans. The first, a Korean War Veteran, who will turn 81 next Thursday. The other patient was a Vietnam Veteran. Both are still profoundly affected by the experience of war, after all these years.

Our first patient was not new to me - I have observed treatments with him on a couple of occasions this semester. He is as I said almost 81. This past year has been a year of first for him, as he has tried to navigate life without his wife of many years. She died in January of this past year. It appears from his interviews that she was his world - the rock that held him together. And after all these years, he still suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

During yesterday's appointment, he discussed all the death that he has experienced among family members during the last 4 months of the year. He brought up his Father's death in November of the year he turned 7. He discussed deaths of aunts and uncles all in this timeframe. Then he said, "December is supposed to be so joyous, but for me it is not." I found this to be so profound - it seems as if all the terrors of war, he has internalized. I think he has probably "stuffed down" a lot of emotions and attributes his ability to cope to his beloved wife. Yet all these terrors and the sense of loss he tags onto the loss of loved ones. I'm sure it has been a difficult year for him. He's made many adjustments to learn to navigate life without his soulmate.

The second patient was a Navy Veteran from the Vietnam era. I was struck by how much that experience in his life defined him. He came in wearing a Navy baseball cap, a Vietnam Veteran belt buckle, T-shirt with a Navy ship and you would not believe the cell phone ringer....."ANCHOR'S AWAY" Full volume (when it rang in the treatment room). This is a man who came home from the war 40 years ago, yet he only sleeps a couple of hours at a time and his always "vigilant" to his surroundings. He says that he was relieved to finally be diagnosed with PSTD, because it gave hims some basis to work from. Before that - he thought he was just "an angry guy".

When he was asked about his daily routine, he said that he volunteered a lot. In my mind's eye, I was thinking "oh good - that's a positive thing". Then he said that his volunteer work sometimes gets him in trouble because he volunteers at the American Legion and the Elks Club. He likes to hang out there, "because there are people there like me, they are not normal - and I am not normal. These people understand me and I can talk to them." My hopes were dashed by this comment. I don't think he sees how much he keeps himself right in this place with how he's living his life.

My question to our instructor was, "How do you help someone move past this stuckness?" I think it is probably a tough thing to do - and I think that this beautiful human being is operating from the most comfortable place he can find in a chaotic world. He has no sense of himself and I guess our job as practitioners is to help him reconnect with HIMSELF - not with the person who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. I have prayed for both of these men, that perhaps some sense of safety and peace will descend upon them this holiday season.

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