Andrew Ward, veteran and founder of the Acadiana Veterans Alliance, wants to reduce post-traumatic stress disorder and help end suicide among veterans in Louisiana. While it’s not a miracle cure, with the help of a single, fast-acting neck injection, he and a team of people in Acadiana are working to help people with PTSD.
While it may sound too good to be true, the lives of 18 Louisiana veterans have been turned upside down, thanks in large part to the injection, known as stellate ganglion block, or SGB, a procedure that costs $1 $500.
Since starting the AVA program in 2020, Ward says he and a team of others at Acadiana have had a 75% success rate treating PTSD, with 18 of 24 GBS procedures having been successful so far. .
Robyn Sonnier, a licensed counselor and certified clinical trauma professional, is part of the team of people working together to address the issue of PTSD and suicide among Acadiana veterans. She selects candidates before GBS injection in her private practice. She also assesses the patient’s progress using the PTSD checklist score. Sonnier says that when GBS is combined with therapy, they see relief from PTSD symptoms in more than 83% of patients – results she considers significant.
“The average drop in post-traumatic stress disorder checklist score is 29 percent, and that’s almost three times better than the result of what the National Center for PTSD claims is clinically significant, which is quite impactful,” Sonnier said.
The problem for many veterans was that insurance did not cover the cost of the procedure. In response to this, in 2020 Ward started the non-profit AVA to help bring veterans and ex-servicemen together to address the issues plaguing their population, including the statistic that 22 veterans die from suicide per day. Then AVA created the Heal Program, which helps fund the treatment. The program covers $1,000 of the total $1,500 cost for veterans, which includes diagnostic screening, follow-up appointments and therapy sessions, according to the alliance’s website.
Ward’s goal for treatment is to reach statewide to help veterans, but also anyone else who has experienced trauma.
To do this, the AVA applied for a grant through the Department of Veterans Affairs that would give the alliance $750,000. Ward thinks the money could help treat an “astonishing” 200 more patients next year.
“As soldiers, we’re always taught to drive and really endure,” Ward said. “But I think an organization like ours, where our entire board is made up of ex-military people, we’re people who [veterans] can relate. I have found that it makes it much easier for [veterans] come and ask us for help.
Ward learned about GBS injection from Dr. Thomas Bond, a Lafayette physician specializing in regenerative medicine. Bond said the injection works within minutes to help relieve patients who are suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms. Now, Bond is working with the AVA to administer GBS injections to veterans with PTSD.
“It really is [one of the] the three main things I do, no doubt,” says Bond, who explained that each injection could save a life because veterans with PTSD have a higher likelihood of being “on the verge of suicide, statistically”.
GBS injection has been used since 1926 to treat chronic pain. However, in recent years, the VA has partnered with the Stella Center to use GBS as a treatment option for PTSD.
On its own, the Stellate Ganglion is a group of nerves that controls the fight or flight response of the body. The injection blocks the nerves and calms them down so that the fight or flight response is back to neutral. Bond says the injection can be given in the office or at the surgery center under anesthesia.
Barry Bouillion, a Marine, received the injection last year. He said he felt the effects immediately, as if his nervous system was saying, “Thanks for the relief. Where have you been, all my life?” Bouillion is also a licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with other veterans. Even so, he said the injection helped him “settle to do the deeper work of therapy on its own.
“A year later, I would say it definitely made a difference,” Bouillion said. “What I don’t believe is that you can do this procedure and it’s an end to everything, be everything.”
He explained that our bodies and brains often hold the score of past trauma, and counseling awakens hyper-awareness and hyper-vigilance of the trauma. He said the injection calmed his body down so he could use the tools he was given to heal through counseling.
According to Bond’s protocol, the treatment is combined with counseling sessions over a period of one year. Ward said AVA’s healing program requires two-week, one-month, six-month and one-year visits to check veterans for PTSD symptoms, tracked using the checklist of PTSD.
Ward said they see success immediately with some and others returning around the six-month mark for another injection.
“It’s not a magic bullet, so it all depends on how bad the trauma the person has been through,” Ward said.
Sonnier is a preferred Stella Center provider and screens candidates prior to injection in his private practice. It measures the patient’s progress using the PCL score.
Sonnier explained that the injection has been proven to help with hyperactivity, aggression, sleep disturbances and irritability, all symptoms that prevent veterans from initially seeking care. She said she has a certain “coup de coeur” for helping the veteran population and offers free sessions to veterans in her practice.
“[Patients] get that physical relief [with the injection]but they also get this emotional relief,” she said.
Bond said the mind absorbs trauma, documents it, and burns it down a neural pathway to become a memory.
“GBS injections physically sever the link between memory and the body, so all of the physical sensations that people experience on a daily basis due to PTSD are literally suppressed in 30 seconds,” Bond said.
Memory manifests as physical reactions, including dilated pupils, sweaty hands, or an elevated heart rate.
Andy Bankard, a veteran who now works in law enforcement, said the biggest benefit of the treatment was that he felt comfortable. He said it’s much easier now to pick up and enjoy activity spontaneously with his kids, explaining that before, if something was wrong with his head, he would cancel the whole day.
“Before the shooting, I wouldn’t have even wanted to talk to anyone about it. I’m much more open about it, I’m not so closed about it because I want to help people, “said Bankard said.
Ultimately for Ward, the goal is to help people get their lives, families, and peace of mind back.
“A lot of these guys are on the verge of suicide,” Ward said. “For us, saving these lives is our number one priority.”