UF College of Nursing gets $3 million donation to work with PTSD victims

Published: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 5:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 5:15 p.m.

Imagine standing in line at the grocery store and feeling trapped if someone pulled up a cart behind you — or fearing for your life every time you were driving and had to stop at a red light.

For people with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, these are common feelings, which can lead to dangerous behaviors, like speeding through red lights, or more typically, total social withdrawal.

Most people will experience at least one trauma in their lives, and that triggers PTSD in 6-10 percent of the general population and 15-30 percent of the military. Nurses are often on the front lines of caring for PTSD victims, and a recently announced gift from a University of Florida College of Nursing alumna will help fund research and education on improving the quality of life for people with both PTSD and TBI, or traumatic brain injury, an oftentimes related condition.

“We are very, very grateful for the gift … and the faith it conveys in our college to help with these very significant health problems,” said Kathleen Long, dean of the UF College of Nursing. “Oftentimes nurses are the health-care providers people feel more comfortable with initially.”

Brenda Barton-Wheaton, who received her bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing in 1971 and 1973 respectively, and her husband Richard Wheaton, a 1956 and 1968 UF agriculture graduate, made the $3 million donation, the largest gift in the college's history.

The UF College of Nursing works closely with the VA Medical Center, where many of the PTSD victims are cared for. According to Christine McKenna, a nurse practitioner at the VA, most veterans with PTSD experience combat-related trauma.

“They're seeing all the ugliest characteristics of humanity,” said McKenna. “When you're 17 and 18, you read about it, or see in horror movies, but it's not real. When it's suddenly in your face, it's difficult to make meaning out of it.”

In the aftermath of combat duty, ordinary things trigger buried emotions, so stopping at a red light signals danger.

“In the desert, you keep moving. If you stop, you are a sitting duck. They are going to get you,” McKenna said, adding that car accidents are the biggest cause of death among returning veterans.

The “fight or flight” response takes over, as the mind and body focus on staying alive. People tend to hear more, and think quickly. Their memories fail them, and digestion shuts down.

Over time, anxiety impedes the ability of PTSD sufferers to concentrate, and they can't sleep. They avoid emotions and eventually withdraw. If their symptoms last three months or longer, they need to be treated, said McKenna.

“What we do for treatment is target avoidance: We make them talk about (the trauma) in intimate detail until it no longer prompts such an emotional response,” she said.

“Obviously a lot of what we listen to is incredibly painful. And we're listening to it over and over,” said McKenna. “It's very important for us to get support from each other. And keep my emotions alive as hard as it is sometimes, so I don't just become a robot. That's not what (the patients) need.”

Long said the College of Nursing is also focusing on reducing the stigmatization of people with PTSD, which can be a barrier for them to accessing care. She said the gift money will also support research related to “comprehensive case management.”

For example, some researchers are looking at how entire families manage complex health problems such as having an autistic child, or a family member with a long-term disability.

“Much of what nursing involves is how to provide comprehensive health care to these people,” said Long.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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