Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
Among the Floating Benches
Col. Mary Martin knew what she wanted in life. She wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to serve in the military so she joined the Air Force. She wanted to teach so she joined the faculty at the MUSC College of Nursing after she retired from active duty.
But there were a few things she didn’t know. She didn’t know she would be assigned to the Pentagon representing the Chief of Air Force Reserve on medical matters in Washington, D.C. She didn’t know she would be a close-range eyewitness to the terrorists flying a jetliner into that building on Sept. 11, 2011. And she didn’t know that she would develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of the carnage she saw on that dark day.
For years she struggled with the memory of seeing the plane smash into the Pentagon as she stood in the parking lot just feet away from the impact. She remembers seeing the belly of the plane and hearing the roar of the low-flying jetliner as it approached the building. She remembers that last second.
“I actually heard him accelerate,” Martin said quietly. “The plane was going so fast. I thought, ‘You should hear a crash.’ But there was no crash.” Then seconds later in what seemed a surreal situation there was a huge fireball. And reality hit.
Martin sprang into action helping a young worker from the Pentagon evacuate, and organizing communication with her headquarters Air Force Reserve unit from her nearby home.
She was sad and angry but she thought her reactions were normal given the circumstances. She functioned at her job but her marriage fell apart and she started to isolate more and more.
“PTSD likes isolation. PTSD likes meaningless distractions,” she said recalling with-drawing from friends, family and social situations more and more in the months following the attack. Finally a year later she sought help from a civilian therapist.
But it wasn’t until 2010, after moving to Charleston, that a fellow faculty member at MUSC suggested she come to the VA for treatment.
“It takes so much courage to say I need help,” said Martin, adding she was limping along with outside help that does not have the expertise found at the VA. Martin entered an intensive five months of Prolonged Exposure Therapy, an empirically supported or research proven treatment method, to deal with her PTSD.
Prolonged Exposure is a two-pronged approach where the patient and therapist talk about the trauma repeatedly during re-corded sessions, explained Charleston VA Clinical Psychologist Rachel Darrow, Ph.D. who worked with Martin. The patient listens to the tape of the trauma on her own as part of her “homework.” Concurrently, the patient also participates in activities she perceives as distressing. A typical example is being in crowds.
Reducing avoidance of the memory allows the patient to feel physical sensations and emotions related to the memory in a safe environment so that it is not as distressing in the future, according to Darrow. Reducing avoidance of activities allows the patient to live an active life without fear dictating her actions.
“The point,” explained Psychologist Rachel Darrow, Ph.D., “is not to forget the memories or emotions. The point is to help Mary regain control and deal more success-fully with the memories.”
Martin, who retold her story over and over and faithfully completed her home-work is the first to admit how painful and hard the process is. But, as she said, she was ready to be healed.
Today I can put 9/11 in perspective and respect it,” said Martin. In fact, Martin has dealt so well with her PTSD that she has special plans for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
“I will be at the Pentagon walking among the floating benches honoring all those who lost their lives on that day,” she said. And while she’s there, and after she comes home, she will know how to deal with the memories.