State Legislature funds local pilot program combating veterans’ PTSD

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State Sen. Garlan Gudger, State Rep. Randall Shedd, Wellstone CEO Chris Van Dyke. (Cullman Tribune file photo)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Veterans in Cullman and other local counties will soon receive the benefits of a promising PTSD treatment, with funding secured by Cullman County’s legislative delegation. The legislature this year included under mental health in the state’s General Fund budget $200,000 to create a pilot program that will provide 160 veterans free access to Stellate Ganglion Block shots that temporarily block the brain’s “fight or flight” mechanism and allow it to reset to a calmer state.

“It is a program that is a pilot program that we are the only ones in the state that were able to get it,” said State Sen. Garlan Gudger. “This is what I call ‘Montgomery money;’ this isn’t local taxpayer money. And so, we are blessed to be able to help our local veterans that have helped us for so many years, by giving them a shot that can transform their life, their family, people that take care of them every day, so that things can be more normal and back to like the way they were before war or whatever they saw.”

The program is based at Wellstone Mental Health’s Cullman office and is available to veterans in Blount, Cullman, Lawrence, Limestone, Marion, Marshall, Morgan, Walker and Winston Counties.

What is the shot?

The Stellate Ganglion Block has been used for years to treat chronic pain, but physicians found that it seemed to have a calming effect on people suffering from high levels of anxiety.

“The stellate ganglion is like a routing center for the nervous system and controls the impulse for ‘fight or flight’,” read 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.”

Doctors from PTSD Group said that, while conventional PTSD therapies often have success rates of 20-30%, the shot’s success rate is 80-90%.

Leading the nation

Cullman’s Saving Forgotten Warriors and VFW Post 2214 led local efforts to raise funds and send veterans to Dr. Sean Mulvaney in Annapolis, Maryland, the closest practice then administering the shot. More recently, they have been able to send vets to Birmingham, where pain specialists at St. Vincent’s Hospital began offering the shot. All shots so far have been supported by local fundraising efforts.

According to VFW’s Col. Ken Brown, Mulvaney 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. 

Volunteers from the two organizations raised approximately $150,000 and sent 170 veterans for treatment in either Annapolis or Birmingham, gaining the attention of the legislative delegation.

Shedd told The Tribune, “We were familiar with the success of the program here in Cullman through volunteers and donations, but donations can only go so far.”

In 2020, Gudger and Shedd both won Legislator of the Year awards for their promotion of mental health at the State House. They hope to continue the trend.

Said Gudger, “This year, we took it to another step, and that is trying to get this money to help, because we’ve had such a local push from Col. Ken Brown at the VFW, and it’s been successful. We’re working through St. Vincent’s Hospital with the pain clinic there, with Dr. Nesbitt and Dr. Barlow. And anybody that is a veteran — this is not paid for by the VA currently; it’s only paid for if you’re active duty — and this allows non-active duty, once you’re discharged, to be able to do that. And there’s so many veterans that are suffering and they don’t want to ask for help because they’ve never needed to. But this is a way they can get it for free, instead of having to pay $1,300 to get the shot. We should be able to help 160 veterans.”

Brown said, “The veterans here are thrilled to death. We’re looking for support in the community, and we’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support here in our own community. And we were really tickled about that. We raised about $80,000 in our community for 2020, and we sent about 68 guys up to Anapolis, Maryland in 2020 — guys and gals — and then, so far this year, we’ve raised about another $70,000 so far, just in the first six months here in our community from different business groups and individuals, and from the City Council and the CCCDC and the County Commission.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of support, but at $800 a pop, you have to stay out in front of it. It’s very, very expensive. But now that we have Dr. Nesbitt and Dr. Barlow down in Birmingham giving the shots, we can save some money on not having to go to Annapolis anymore. And so, we’re very excited about 160 more free shots being opened up by this pilot program. And we’re looking forward to not only having some help on the fundraising, but also spreading the word. And now that veterans from nine counties in north Alabama are going to be able to take advantage of this, hopefully we’ll get the word out to a lot of veterans up here in north Alabama, and this’ll spread beyond just Cullman County. 

“And that’s been our objective all along. We want to try to get the word out to as many people as possible, because what we’re trying to do is save lives. You know, 22 suicides a day is just unacceptable.”

How will the program work?

Brown told The Tribune that veterans will apply to Wellstone’s Cullman office and go in for an evaluation. After approval, they will receive the shot in Birmingham. Following the shot, they will have two follow-up visits with Wellstone to evaluate the effectiveness of the shot.

After a year, said Brown, “Wellstone will report the results of the program, the 160 shots, at the end of the year to the legislature with the hope that they’ll sustain the program or even build on the program and get increased funding in the next year.”

Shedd said, “The challenge now is going to be to, and I think we’ll be able to, continue it, because we’ll be able to prove the effectiveness in our districts.”

More help needed

Brown, who has spearheaded fundraising efforts for the VFW/SFW “800 Club” to pay for veterans’ shots, noted that the state funding helps, but does not solve the problem of PTSD, even in this area.

Said Brown, “The thing I wanted to make sure that the local people understand here, that have been helping and giving money and so on, is that we’re going to need to continue to do our fundraising here, as will the other VFW posts, because the need is far greater the 160 people a year, and these 160 slots are going to have to come from a nine-county area.”

Approximately 12% of Alabama’s 375,000 veterans suffer from PTSD. Of 7,000 veterans in Cullman County, up to 850 may have the condition.

“We’ve got 700 more right here in our own county that probably need to go get the shot,” said Brown. “So that gives you an idea of how much funding we’re going to have to get from our community, just to take care of our own people here. And that’s an important part of the story.”

Wellstone will begin the program on Aug. 1, 2021. Veterans who are interested may apply now. To apply or for more information visit https://www.wellstone.com or call 256-255-1020 or 256-734 4688. Wellstone’s Cullman office is located at 1909 Commercial Ave. in Cullman.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com