Potpourri: Post Traumatic Stress – One Saga:
The January mass shooting in Tucson leaves behind six dead, 14 wounded, and likely PTSD victims. Time to revisit this article I wrote about a friend’s decades-long struggle to get over the Vietnam War and the post-trauma stress.
(First written in 2000) Janis Nark is a friend and I want to tell you her story. During the Vietnam War, the 21 year-old Army nurse treated wounded and dying soldiers in Southeast Asia for more than a year. For the next 20 years she shut out the experience. She couldn’t cope with the memories. She didn’t talk about them. She didn’t cry about them – about anything – until about six years ago. That was when Janis decided to let the demons out. She had to because her ignored past was bursting through to the present, unbidden, as flashbacks. One struck her to the floor of her Western North Carolina home. Confronted with such episodes, Janis was compelled to talk about the war. She gave speeches about it. These purges helped but shook her confident almost haughty demeanor. Conversations turned tearful. Emotions hair-trigger.
The retired Lieutenant Colonel was in that shaky state when I first met her although catharsis was in progress. She had just given an inspiring presentation at the Vietnam Memorial – “The Wall” – while sharing the podium with President Clinton.
She told me she recalled feeling helpless while bandaging a never-ending line of grievously injured young men. Some she mended only to watch them go back into battle. She talked of Vietnam and especially remembered a West Coast military hospital where some of her anguish was greatest. The hospital’s very success at saving lives made it almost other-worldly to her and her patients. Jets whisked wounded from Southeast Asia to expert care in the U.S. within hours. A bleeding soldier could lose consciousness in a jungle and awaken in a hospital in America half a world away. The injured would open their eyes to see Janis and other nurses. The troops called them “angels.” Some wondered if they were already dead.
That particular hospital was central to the flashback that knocked her down at home. She had been running on a treadmill while rehearsing a speech when a horror arrived unannounced. She fell to the floor and into the past.
U.S. Hospital Intensive Care Unit 1975. The patient next to hers is in full cardiac and respiratory arrest as his family stands around the boy. Janis is the only nurse present. She pushes past the bewildered relatives to do what she has done so often. She pounds the soldier’s chest to jump-start his heart. She orders the family to run for help. They don’t or can’t. They’re wide-eyed and petrified at Janis’ “assault” on their son, not comprehending her violence. The drama unfolds in slow motion. Janis is center-stage alone with a young man dying as loved ones watch. There is no escape. She has no idea how it will end.
Suddenly, help arrives. Janis and her comrades revive the soldier. He recovers. Janis, though, is seared. She walks out of the hospital that night and never returns. She quits nursing.
Still on the floor in the flashback, Janis remembers more. For the first time in 20 years she can see the face of the 18 year-old boy she saved. Now she understands why she left her profession. She could not witness one more boy’s death. She had “buried” his face along with all of the others she had treated until it kicked back into her consciousness.
Such was the trauma she had ignored and was only now beginning to address. These were the memories she no longer repressed. Flash forward 4 years. Janis and I are talking. This time her manner is confident. War questions hurt less. “What changed,” I ask? She says she has let it out. Four years of truth-telling are setting her free.
It’s been seven years since I wrote the original version of that article and 11 years since I met Janis. When I first put it to paper my point was to let her experience be a lesson for those who are overstressed. Let the demons out. That was before 9/11. Before Iraq. I offer her story again: make of it what you will.