Jacksonville hospital part of new study to better understand, treat and prevent PTSD

By: Tenikka Hughes , Action News Jax

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Action News Jax is committed to covering issues that impact our local military community, including the mental and emotional challenges many of them face each day. 

Right now, there is a major new effort to understand exactly what our veterans are dealing with and possibly prevent post-traumatic stress altogether.

Action News Jax Anchor Tenikka Hughes learned part of that work is happening at a Jacksonville emergency room. 

Michelle Poitier served in the U.S. Navy for 13 years.

“I was a Navy cryptologist, code breaker," she said, “I loved my job. I loved what I did.”

While on a job that gave her so much pride, Poitier experienced some of her darkest days. Poitier said she was sexually assaulted by a fellow service member and also ended up in an abusive relationship. When she left the military in 2003, the trauma she endured began to take its toll.

“I was depressed. I was always in a fight-or-flight state of mind. I actually became suicidal. I attempted suicide a couple of times,” Poitier said.

Seven years went by before she was diagnosed.  

“I was diagnosed with PTSD, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder.  A myriad of disorders.” Poitier said. “It just it devastated me.”

Learning more about how post-traumatic stress develops and how to treat it is the goal of the largest study of its kind, happening right now.  Dr. Samuel McLean is leading the AURORA study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  

“What’s really critical to help vets and others experiencing trauma is to develop better understanding what happens in the minutes hours and days after a traumatic event, after a life-threatening event,” McLean said.

Fifteen hospitals across the country, including UF Health Jacksonville, will enroll 5,000 patients to study over the course of a year. Study participants are 18 to 69 years old and end up in the emergency room within 24 hours after traumatic events, including car accidents, physical and sexual assaults and major falls. All the the participants are also discharged from the hospital the same day.

Patients who agree to participate in the study give a blood or saliva sample. They also fill out a number of surveys before they leave the ER. Before they are released, each person is given a Verily Study Watch specially designed to collect data, including heart rates and sleep patterns. A smartphone app will also be used to collect data. Some of the hospitals will also give patients follow-up MRIs.   

“There's just a ton of data points they will be able to link to what different responses that people have,” UF Health Research Assistant Jennifer Bowman said.

The hope is this data will lead to a breakthrough to better treat or even prevent post-traumatic stress. 

“I think it will change lives. I think it will open up new treatments.  It will help us screen people early and identify who needs help,” said Dr. Phyllis Hendry, assistant chair for emergency medicine at UF Health in Jacksonville.  

Researchers also hope this study will help break the stigma surrounding post-traumatic stress.

Fellow veterans connected Poitier to resources that helped her overcome her challenges.  She has since started a nonprofit and radio show to help other women veterans heal. Poitier said she is hopeful this new study will transform and save lives.

“I’m excited just at the prospect of helping so many who struggle silently,” she said.

If you or someone you know needs help immediately, call the Veteran's Crisis Hotline 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

To learn about the AURORA study, click here.

For more information on UF Health’s Emergency Medicine Research, click here.

To connect with Michelle Poitier’s non-profit Healing Women Healing Nations of NE Florida, click here or here.

For resources for PTSD, click here.

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