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Pain specialist uses injections to help military personnel with PTSD

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CHICAGO — A local pain medicine specialist says he can inject a sense of calm into patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Critics are waiting for results from a formal study; meanwhile, hundreds of people, including military personnel, say they’ve been saved, including a woman with nightmarish injuries who traveled to Chicago because she says she knows he treatment works.

First Lt. Katie Blanchard, a retired U.S. Army nurse, suffered a horrific attack while working at a community hospital in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Blanchard said her superiors warned her for months about co-worker Clifford Currie's disturbing and aggressive behavior.

"Right away, I was very frank with them and told them, ‘I don’t feel safe. I think that he is going to attack me. I don’t feel safe.'" Blanchard said. "I felt that he was going to bring a gun into work."

He didn't — he brought gasoline. In September of 2016,  Blanchard saw the civilian employee she supervised approach her out of the corner of her eye.

"It was in a water bottle, but it was brown and I could smell it, and right away I knew he was going to try to kill me," Blanchard said. "He doused me with the gasoline, threw two lit matches on me, and lit me on fire in my office while I was still sitting at my computer.”

Blanchard has undergone more than 100 procedures for severe burns since the attack. Skin grafts from her lower body have helped heal 18% of her upper body that was burned.

"So that’s the physical aspect, but the mental aspect of it, psychologically, it was so hard," she said. "I couldn’t sleep at night, I had terrible nightmares and flashbacks. I always felt like I was kinda revved up or always on guard, and I could never fully relax.”

When WGN met the mother of three young boys, she wasn’t prepping for another skin surgery. Instead, she was in Chicago to receive an old procedure with a new purpose. Blanchard is in therapy and takes medications to help her cope with PTSD, but two years ago, she was offered something else: the stellate ganglion block, or SGB. It's a procedure pain medicine specialist Dr. Eugene Lipov has long championed as an effective treatment for PTSD.

"This very visceral peacefulness came over me, and I didn’t feel anxious. I didn’t feel that constant anxiety I had been holding in," she said.

The effects lasted about a year, so she came back for another round with Lipov.

Thirteen years ago, Lipov began using SGB to treat military personnel suffering with PTSD, a story WGN covered back in 2008. Since then, he’s performed the injection on more than 350 active duty and retired personnel, but along the way, he’s faced deep skepticism and opposition within the medical community.

"Yes, for many, many years that’s true. It’s been a long road, but I think we’re getting there, finally," Lipov said.

The U.S. military, now faced with staggering suicide rates among veterans, was slow to offer the procedure broadly even after Lipov published his early, promising results. More recently, the Department of Defense funded a formal study at three U.S. military bases. The findings are expected to be published in the coming months.

"We’ve seen so many people’s lives transformed. Some people have been saved from suicide by doing this, thankfully," Lipov said.

An X-ray helps guide Lipov’s hand as he navigates the needle to his target in the cervical spine — the stellate ganglion, a bundle of nerves known to help regulate our fight or flight response in the brain, which is on overdrive in patients with PTSD.

There, he injects a local anesthetic, the same drug used for an epidural during child delivery. The numbing agent lasts for about eight hours at the injection site, but Lipov says the effect in the brain can last for months to years.

“It’s made a huge impact in my life," Blanchard said.

The cost of the procedure is $2,000. It’s not covered by insurance, but Lipov offers military personnel a discount. And he has established a non-profit organization called Erase PTSD Now to help patients pay for treatment.

As for Blanchard's attacker, he was convicted of intent to commit murder and is serving a 20-year sentence.

To learn more about Lipov’s non-profit, check out eraseptsdnow.org

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