SGB shots available closer to home

Almost 90 local veterans have benefited from the procedure

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Cullman Savings Bank CEO John Riley (center) presented a $5,000 donation recently, on behalf of the bank's foundation, to local veterans Clyde Johnson (left) and Cliff Fowler (right) to support the 800 Club, a project that obtains SGB shots for veterans suffering from PTSD. (Courtesy of Ken Brown)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Almost 90 Cullman area veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are enjoying the benefits of the Stellate Ganglion Block (SGB) shot that offers them a chance to “reset their brains,” in a manner of speaking. Through a partnership between local nonprofit Saving Forgotten Warriors (SFW) and Cullman Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2214 (VFW) known as the 800 Club (named for the cost of the shot), more thaSn 60 veterans traveled to Maryland in 2020 to receive the shot free of charge, funded by contributions from local businesses, groups and individuals. Less than two full months into the new year, 20 more veterans have already traveled to a new local provider to receive the procedure.

Col. Ken Brown told The Tribune, “Our (2020) goal was 24, to try to finance 24 going up there at $1,200 a pop ($800 for the shot and $400 in travel expenses), and we were able to send 68 veterans up to Annapolis in 2020. And we just started in January, raising money in the community again to try to keep this thing going for a while, because Congress is not coming through with any legislation to do that, with the election and the deadlock, and the COVID and everything else.”

VFW and SFW reached out to and have received support recently from a number of local entities, including:

  • The Cullman County Community Development Commission, which approved an $8,000 grant
  • The Cullman City Council, which approved a $6,000 grant
  • The Cullman County Commission, which approved $12,000 in grants ($6,000 each to VFW and SFW)
  • The Cullman Savings Bank Foundation, which contributed $5,000
  • Ronnie Apel of Apel Steel, who donated an undisclosed amount
  • Multiple anonymous individuals have given large contributions

 

“That sounds like a lot of money,” said Brown, “but we have, in the meantime, in order to try and cut our expenses from $1,200 a person down to $800 a person- which is what the shot costs- we’ve tried to eliminate the travel by finding doctors in the local area that could administer this treatment. And we were able to find a doctor, Bob Nesbitt, who practiced medicine here at Cullman Regional for about 25 years, and he has since moved down and opened a pain clinic at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham.”

Nesbitt Pain Associates also includes Dr. Jeremy Barlow, who lives in the Vinemont area, making the local providers doubly invested in the Cullman community. Being able to run down to Birmingham instead of trekking to Maryland has significantly lowered the overall cost of receiving the procedure, meaning that donated funds can help more veterans.

Brown continued, “We have sent about 20 guys down to them so far in January and February, so we won’t be going back to Annapolis anymore. We’ve got doctors right here, close to home, so that has eliminated the $400 (travel) cost per individual, and now we’re just down to trying to raise $800 per shot, sending these guys and gals down to Birmingham.”

No overhead; it’s all for the vets

Brown told The Tribune, “The thing that’s really important for people here locally to understand as we seek help from the community is that there is not one penny of overhead; in other words, nobody at the VFW is getting any money, nobody at Saving Forgotten Warriors is getting any money. Everybody’s a volunteer; we’re not spending the money on any overhead, light bills or anything else. It’s all going directly to paying for the shot.”

Plenty of donations but plenty of need, so more help needed

“When you look at $800 a pop, how long does the money last? You get $6,000 from the City; how many times does 800 go into $6,000? You can send seven guys with the money that we’ve got from the city council this year, and we can send 14 guys with all the money that we’ve gotten from the county commission this year. You begin to see that- we’ve already sent 20 people down for shots in Birmingham this year. I want people to understand when they see it publicized that somebody gave us eight or somebody gave us six, or somebody gave us $5,000, $5,000 only sends five or six guys, and we’ve got a line of people that are really looking to go get the shot,” explained Brown.

“And about 10% of our guys have to get it a second time because, I guess, it does wear off. Some people it works for- they only have to get one shot, period- but some then have to go back again and again, hopefully not that often. But certainly, within a year’s time, about 10% of them have had to go back,” he said. “We’re really, really conscious of the 22 a day veterans that are killing themselves across the country, and we’re really determined that that is something that is not going to happen here.”

Cullman County leading the nation

According to Brown, Dr. Sean Mulvaney, who performed the SGB procedure for Cullman’s veterans at his practice in Annapolis, Maryland, said that Cullman County is the only county in the U.S. that has veterans’ organizations actively involved in efforts to send vets for the shot.

Reflecting on the number of veterans across Alabama and the nation in need of PTSD treatment, Brown said, “All those people need it, and all those people right now, all those veterans right now are on anti-psychotic and anti-depression drugs, and the drug industry is making a fortune off it. The pharmaceutical industry’s making a fortune off these guys, and it’s not doing them any good. So as our people go and get the shot, they are finding that they’re successful and slowly coming off a lot of the meds that they’ve been prescribed at the VA Hospital. And that’s very helpful, because now they’re able to sleep at night, they’re able to reestablish good relations with the kids, their family, their associates at work. They’re able to hold down jobs. They’re not anxious anymore, they’re not depressed anymore, they’re not abusing alcohol anymore. All those things that have to do with PTSD are falling away.”

What is the shot?

“The stellate ganglion is like a routing center for the nervous system and controls the impulse for ‘fight or flight’,” said a statement from Kristine Rae Olmsted, a research epidemiologist with RTI International, an independent nonprofit research institute. “Anesthetizing the ganglion blocks nerve impulses temporarily. We still don’t know how SGB works to improve PTSD symptoms, but now we know that it does.”

According to RTI International: “In the early 2010s, some military medical centers began offering patients with PTSD a procedure that had been used for decades to relieve pain. The procedure, called stellate ganglion block, or SGB, involves injecting a local anesthetic into the stellate ganglion. This group of nerve cells and nerves in the neck helps regulate the body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. As more and more patients tried the stellate ganglion block, the reports seemed promising. But the medical community still needed evidence of its effectiveness. RTI in 2014 launched a randomized, controlled trial of SGB, and in fall 2019, we found that it is indeed effective.”

For more information

If you, your church, business or organization would like to find out more about the SGB shot, Brown is happy to come and make a presentation in person.  You can contact him through VFW Post 2214 or call 256-507-1121.

If you need help

Brown told The Tribune, “We need to encourage veterans in our community who have heard about this but have not taken advantage of it, yet, to notify either Saving Forgotten Warriors or the VFW, and come on in and seek the help, because we can help them. That’s what we want to do; we want to get the word out: not only to people to help donate to this, but to people that are needing it.”

Brown concluded with one more piece of advice for veterans: “Getting the shot’s not the final answer. A lot of these guys, we determined, really need a support group, some place where they can go and talk, and express their feelings, find out about the SGB shot, and find out what others’ reactions have been and how it’s helping others, so on and so forth. We now have an SGB support group for veterans at the VFW post every Wednesday night at 7. Folks can come and just sit and talk and be with their band of brothers. That’s what it’s all about. It’s open to any veteran that has a PTSD problem or has had the SGB shot or thinks they might want to go get the SGB shot.”

For more, visit www.facebook.com/cullmanVFWPost or www.facebook.com/Savingforgottenwarriors.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com