Sunday, February 8, 2009

PTSD: Achilles in Vietnam and the TV Show Grey’s Anatomy

Here’s a guest post from my younger daughter Yael K. Miller:

“War changes men” has probably been a saying around as long as war. In my own family’s history, my great-grandfather returned home from World War I and everyone said he was never the same, although that may be because he was supposedly gassed.

Now PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the news since U.S. military personnel have been returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

In my senior year of college I had to write a paper on Stephen Crane’s novel THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE. And as I had to write this paper over a break, I thought this was the perfect time to read a book on the bookshelf of my father (a military history buff).

As a Classical Studies minor I had been waiting to get the opportunity to read ACHILLES IN VIETNAM: COMBAT TRAUMA AND THE UNDOING OF CHARACTER by Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., published in 1994. The book compares Homer’s THE ILIAD with Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD whom Dr. Shay treated. (See below a summary of symptoms as quoted in the book.)

I am certainly not qualified to diagnose PTSD in any way but the book gave me the tools to recognize the signs of PTSD, at least in fiction. I have seen this most prominently in ABC’s current television drama “Gray’s Anatomy where no one has ever explicitly said PTSD but they are clearly dealing with this subject in the character of former army major Dr. Owen Hunt.

We first encounter this character in one episode when he’s in Seattle before being deployed again to Iraq. A couple of episodes later he returns to the hospital, and it turns out he was medically discharged after he was the sole survivor of an attack on a 20-person convoy.

Here’s where the “Grey’s Anatomy” writing staff does something I find incomprehensible. Even though he was medically discharged and the chief of the hospital knows this, there is no indication that this character receives any counseling (even though a well-written therapist has already been featured in previous episodes).

Dr. Hunt displays classic (according to ACHILLES IN VIETNAM) symptoms of PTSD. He has outbursts of rage, and most recently in the February 5th episode, Dr. Hunt experiences a full-blown panic attack.

PTSD is not a condition that can only be found in soldiers. As the name implies – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – it can occur to any one who endures a traumatic effort. In the same episode, Dr. Miranda Bailey displays what to my unscientific knowledge seemed to be PTSD.

Previously a dying child that she worked for years to try to save almost died, although a miracle was pulled off at the last moment. The Feb. 5th episode shows Dr. Bailey telling the chief that she has for the first time, except for her maternity leave, taken three days off. Now she is hesitant in walking around the hospital – quite at odds with her former take-charge attitude.

When she gets pulled into another pediatric case, she whispers to another doctor: “If that child so much as looks like she’s going to die, I’m walking out of here.” And in fact when the surgery goes south at one point, Dr. Bailey leaves the emergency room, overwhelmed by panic.

I highly, highly recommend that everyone even tangentially involved with the military (actually I think everyone should read this book) read ACHILLES IN VIETNAM. I believe this book will give you insights into PTSD signs that you might be seeing and not know you’re seeing, and you’ll be better prepared in the future.

(I just learned that Dr. Shay wrote another book, ODYSSEUS IN AMERICA: COMBAT TRAUMA AND THE TRIALS OF HOMECOMING, published in 2002 with a foreword by Senator John McCain.)
(H)ere is a summary of the key symptoms of PTSD and of the personality changes that mark its severe forms. … The symptoms can range in severity from mild to devastating, and not everyone will have all of the symptoms at the same time:
• Loss of authority over memory function – particularly memory and trustworthy perception
• Persistent mobilization of the body and the mind for lethal danger, with the potential for explosive violence
• Persistence and activation of combat survival skills in civilian life
• Chronic health problem stemming from chronic mobilization of the body for danger
• Persistent expectation of betrayal and exploitation; destruction of the capacity for social trust
• Persistent preoccupation with both the enemy and the veteran’s own military/governmental authorities
• Alcohol and drug abuse
• Suicidality, despair, isolation and meaninglessness


Book Marketing Buzz said...

Omg, listen, in the restaurant where I work, there was this bum. He was asleep and I told the manager about it. He finally walked over and tapped him on the shoulder to get him to leave. The guy shot up and said, "You don't do that! I was in 'Nam!" So there you go. I feel so sorry for these just don't know what they have been through. Any normal person going in isn't the same coming out. Great guest post!

Phyllis Zimbler Miller said...

Dorothy --

Thanks so much for leaving this comment. And you are so right that we have no idea what they've been through. That's why it's important for the rest of us to recognize PTSD symptoms so we can react appropriately when we see someone exhibiting symptoms.


Mayra Calvani said...

This is a very thoughtful and informative post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this condition. I admit I didn't know much about it.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller said...

Mayra --

If you want to read a powerful description of a soldier living with PTSD and what brought it on -- go to .

I read the transcript last night but there's also a slide show. And I hope to interview this person (Bob Page) on the BlogTalkRadio show that I co-host.

Thanks for leaving a comment.


kyle said...

Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts with us.

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