A psychologist at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, whose research has helped hundreds of veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, received national recognition this month for his work.
Dr. Peter Tuerk received the Department of Veterans Affairs Olin E. Teague Award last week for his research in a therapy that exposes veterans suffering PTSD to the triggers that cause them to be anxious or act out.
Tuerk brought the breakthrough therapy to rural veterans through “telemedicine,” treating them remotely using live feeds through cameras and computer monitors.
“We exposed patients to their bad feelings for long enough for them to get used to it,” Tuerk said.
For example, patients may be stressed by the sound of a car backfiring, which reminds them of enemy fire. Tuerk and the psychologists he trained would repeatedly expose those patients to the sound of a backfiring car.
“The bad memories lose their teeth and become just like a regular bad memory,” he said.
Beyond telemedicine, Tuerk has exposed patients to other anxiety-causing situations. He has taken patients to crowded restaurants, dirt roads and the beach, which reminds some veterans of traumatic experiences they had while fighting in the desert.
“We stay there for long enough for them to get used to it,” he said “They get to be bored of things that used to make them anxious.”
Some patients can’t sleep because they wake up to noises as slight as trees rustling or the house shifting. Tuerk and his colleagues went to the homes of about 15 such patients to bang on pots and pans while they slept. Even though they knew Tuerk was making the noise, they leapt out of bed each time, he said. Eventually, they were able to remain in bed, choosing not to get up instead of automatically reacting, he said.
“For a lot of them, this treatment pushes them over the hump,” he said.
Between 8 and 22 percent of veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom return to the U.S. with PTSD, Tuerk said.
Tuerk said he will continue to research exposure therapy over the next five years using a grant from the VA worth $65,000 annually. He plans to use technology to measure stress levels as patients confront negative triggers.