Finding Some Semblance of Healing

Victoria Tilney McDonough
BrainLine
Finding Some Semblance of Healing

After a long and arduous quest for care, Andrea Sawyer and her husband, US Army Sgt. Loyd Sawyer – who lives with physical pain, a TBI, and severe PTSD – are finding that sharing their story is a way to heal layer by layer.

It was the three-letter word “yet” that truly terrified Andrea Sawyer.

Her husband, US Army Sgt. Loyd Sawyer, had returned from deployment February 2007 with a yet-to-be official diagnosis of severe PTSD as well as many symptoms indicative of traumatic brain injury. Once a very easy-going and lovable guy, Loyd was a different man from the one Andrea had fallen in love with when she was 16. He yelled and raged. He paced the house unable to sleep. His heart raced and his hands were often squeezed into angry, white fists. He spent hours crying on the floor with his dog, Sophie. A broad man of 6’5, he was disappearing into the darkness of himself.

Nine months later at Thanksgiving things were getting worse rather than better. Andrea told Loyd that at his next appointment, she wanted him to tell the doctor everything, no sugar coating. “What’s the point?” Loyd had said. “They don’t care! They won’t do anything unless I’m ready to kill myself or someone else. And I’m not there yet.”

That three-letter word gut-punched Andrea. “Hearing him say ‘yet’ in that context made me realize we were way past the point of caring about how his medical records might affect his career in the military. This was death shuffling closer,” she says. As his wife and caregiver, she shifted into overdrive. But it would take her 11 frustrating and agonizing months to get him the help he needed.

Tangle of faces

Before Loyd enlisted in the wake of 9/11, he had been a civilian funeral home director and embalmer for 13 years. “Okay, so it wasn’t your usual dinnertime conversation, but we’d talk about the bodies; it’s what he did after all,” says Andrea. After he’d deal with a body — the circumstances and family and everything that goes along with a death — he’d work through his own emotional process and then he’d be able to move on. But once Loyd was home from Iraq — and from Dover Port Mortuary before that — and despite hoping that he was working through his usual grieving process, Andrea knew this was different.

Loyd couldn’t stop the images. He’d see the dead faces. He’d see the body parts — an arm or part of a torso — some with tattoos that seemed to taunt him in his nightmares. He’d remember the smell of the vehicles he’d have to clear after an explosion, skin and brains and liquid flesh rank on the walls and seats. He became so sensitized to the smell of decay that he could tell if a vehicle was not perfectly clean without even looking. He’d remember what he’d find in the pockets of the bodies he processed — photographs of girlfriends or parents, letters wrinkled from being read so many times, a rabbit’s foot, a St. Christopher medal.

After a Turkish aircraft crashed outside the walls of Balad where they were stationed, Loyd and his team processed 26 bodies. The bodies were so hot they melted through the body bags. The sight of that long row of steaming black bags, the smell … none of it would go away even when he was home, thousands of miles from Iraq.

From anger to depression

It’s no wonder that Loyd felt tortured when he came home. He couldn’t sleep, his short-term memory was all but shot, his head pounded incessantly, and he was incredibly angry all the time. “For the first several months he was home, he made everyone miserable,” says Andrea. “He would say cruel things and rage over trivial stuff like forgetting directions he’d printed out. As a funeral director’s wife, I understood that he was fighting against the fact that there had been no manual for not being able to put a body back together again. But I thought, naively, that he would grieve what had happened in Iraq and move on. And he refused to get help, insisting there was nothing wrong with him.”

No longer able to tolerate what was happening to her family, she told Loyd she was going to phone his command; he needed help and reaching out for it was going to be non-negotiable from that minute on. The next morning when Loyd went to check in at Fort Lee — he was still reporting for duty — he was taken to the mental health clinic only to be told that they couldn’t fit him in for an appointment until May, three months from then. As a stop-gap, they enrolled him in anger management training. “I learned that he was kicked out of anger management training for being too angry when the front door slammed against the house upon his arrival home,” says Andrea. They told him to go to the mental health clinic. The mental health clinic reminded him that they couldn’t see him until May. Loyd told her he’d stood in that corridor of closed doors and just shook.

“That afternoon, he broke down,” says Andrea. He put his head in his wife’s lap and sobbed. “We lost a lot of anger that day, but then came his spiral into depression. We both spiraled down as we waited for May to arrive.”

When the appointment finally arrived, Loyd was diagnosed with “readjustment disorder,” given several prescriptions, and told to come back in 30 days. It was like a slap in the face. Some of the pills caused confusion and violent behavior. At one point, Loyd beat on the computer table causing the keyboard to fly across the room. Another time he was told he was an alcoholic because he had started drinking to sleep since the meds weren’t working. He stopped immediately.

“He’d go to his appointments and come home dejected. He clearly didn’t feel as if he was being listened to at all. If anything, they’d just give him new or different meds,” says Andrea.

On December 17, the mental health clinic was still saying that Loyd was okay. But by this time, he was either crying or non-responsive. Andrea went with him to his next appointment. The doctor told Andrea that Loyd was doing okay and that at their meeting that morning Loyd had told him that he’d had a great time playing with his kids the night before. Andrea shook her head. “He is not living in reality! Our kids weren’t home last night, they’ve been staying with their grandparents because of all this,” she told him. “How can you tell him he is okay? Look at him!” Loyd was in the corner of the office, rocking back and forth. Then he started speaking. “I don’t remember last night or this morning, I can’t think … all I see are dead bodies.” Loyd proceeded to describe in grave detail how he would slit his throat so there would be no mistake. “It was as if a light bulb finally went off in this doctor’s head,” says Andrea. “We would be going to the hospital immediately.”

Cutting through the red tape

At the time, the closest places for military psych hospitalization were Portsmouth Naval Hospital and Water Reed Army Medical Center, both two hours away in opposite directions. So, with one of his battle buddies, Andrea had to drive Loyd herself to Portsmouth Naval Hospital. There, after waiting in the ER, filling out forms, getting tested and evaluated, Loyd was finally admitted to the psych floor. Andrea asked the nurse if she should stay in case they called her to pick up Loyd, or if she could go home for a few hours. “Why would we call you to come get him? He needs to be here,” the nurse had said. “It was the first time someone got it. The first time someone saw what I saw,” says Andrea. “I felt so relieved.”

Loyd stayed in the hospital for three weeks then lived in the barracks and attended intensive outpatient therapy at the hospital eight hours a day for two more weeks. He was finally getting the attention he needed for his PTSD, TBI (which had both been finally formally diagnosed), and several other physical issues, but Andrea felt defeated once again when several days after he was admitted, the doctor called to tell her that he didn’t see Loyd ever being fit for military service again, nor for a civilian career. He would need years of intensive therapy. “That was very difficult to hear,” she says. “I mean, what do you do with that?”

Andrea believes that had Loyd gotten the proper care earlier, some of his problems may have been preventable, or at least less intense. “I was fuming! It was a total systems failure,” says Andrea, adding that she felt as if their whole lives were unraveling because the doctors hadn’t been the right doctors at the right time, or they hadn’t listened, there hadn’t been available appointments … they’d been sloughed off like a ratty old coat.

In July 2011, Andrea shared these feelings at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. “My husband — who was transitioned out of the Army in September 2008 — is a veteran with well-documented severe chronic PTSD and TBI who gets treatment at one of VA’s major VA polytrauma centers. We have all the advantages that should guarantee him good treatment — an excellent, caring Federal Recovery Coordinator; the priority associated with a 100 percent service-connected disability rating; an OIF case manager; and the assistance of a super VSO. If a veteran with all these advantages cannot access timely, consistent, appropriate veteran-centered care in a system dedicated to the care of veterans, what confidence can this Committee have that a newly enrolled veteran who has recently returned from the war zone will have greater success?”

Finding their voices

Being deployed with Mortuary Affairs means facing many, many traumatic events. Like the body upon body that Loyd had to try to piece back together, his trauma had to be dealt with layer upon layer. Andrea describes Loyd’s art therapy notebook that contained what seemed like endless drawings of feet, bones sticking out, leather and skin, burial boots.

Because of his 100 percent disability rating, Loyd is finally getting consistent intensive therapy for his PTSD and TBI-related symptoms. He continues to make progress and recently completed his peer mentor training through the Wounded Warrior Project. “He takes other vets out on his boat. It’s good for his spirits,” says Andrea.

“I want to emphasize — so other families will understand this — that Loyd has only gotten better because we made it a priority to get him better and we have done whatever it takes to move him forward —within the system or outside it,” she says. “I’ve found that many veterans feel like they have to stay within the VA, but some have other options, too, like Medicare, TRICARE, the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), Give An Hour, the Wounded Warrior Project(WWP), state behavioral health programs, Vet Centers, and so on. Find the options available and use what works. That’s my advice.”

That said, Andrea knows they still have a long way to go, but with a hard-fought treatment plan, Loyd’s medical team is on the same page and working toward clearly defined goals. She and Loyd realize that “a long way to go” is a wiggly term when it comes to dealing with PTSD and TBI. “In our case, ‘a long way’ may not come with a definitive endpoint,” she says. She also understands all too well that when it comes to TBI and PTSD, the whole family is affected. “We are all secondary casualties. We had to heal ourselves and our family. Injuries have a ripple effect,” she says. “You have to do your own grieving and rebuilding process so you can support your injured loved one in his recovery.” 

As for Andrea, herself, she is recovering her old stride. Her two boys are back on track, and one is getting help to cope with the prolonged family stress. And she has found a new voice. Having been a social studies school teacher, Andrea returned to work in March 2011 first as a national spokesperson with WWP and now as a family support coordinator with the Quality of Life Foundation where she helps connect veterans and families with the proper resources. Through these organizations, she was finally able to meet other caregivers like her. She had been holding her breath for so long, it seemed, that when she finally got to talk to other people who understood, it was like she had emerged from underwater.

“Something bad happened to us — fighting for the care Loyd needed and not being able to get it for so long. And if we fell through the cracks, we knew others were, too. We couldn’t change what had happened to us, but we could help others. And we could try to help affect change on a higher level,” says Andrea. “So that’s what Loyd and I are doing and it’s been surprisingly healing. You can laugh or you can cry. I’ve done enough of the latter. And sharing our experiences to help other families get the prompt and proper care they deserve is definitely good for the spirit.”

Posted on BrainLine January 3, 2013

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