Who is watching your back
Christopher Hill and Verde
There is something deeply warming about stories of humans rescuing animals in need. Sometimes you find stories of sick and broken animals whose soul has been rescued by a compassionate human - but it also happens that you find extraordinary stories of an animal rescuing the sick and broken spirit in a human. Here’s one such wonderfully moving story. It’s just an excerpt of a longer article called “Someone to watch over me” found at HSUS (The Humane Society of the United States).
Sleep—like air and water—is something people rarely think about until they’re unable to get any. Then, abruptly, sleep becomes a grail, its absence anguishing, affecting all elements of an insomniac’s life. Lack of sleep impairs the brain’s ability to learn, to grow, to process thoughts and emotions. And when those emotions are already in turmoil, a human being can experience a perfect storm of trouble.
That storm hit Christopher Hill hard. The Marine staff sergeant had a raft of reasons for the insomnia that began after his first deployment to Iraq in 2003. He’d survived two more tours, all in heavily contested Fallujah, when during his fourth tour of duty in April 2004, his camp was subjected to an insurgent attack. A rocket propelled grenade exploded nearby, killing four people. Hill was thrown into the air and landed on his back on a concrete barrier.
After the initial shock, he thought he was fine. “I figured I was good to go, no bleeding from the ears, no broken bones. I was sore, but I’d gotten kicked up in the air like Charlie Brown, so I figured I was gonna be sore,” he says. But back at Camp Pendleton in California, the longtime bodybuilder was in the gym doing bench presses one day, and when he racked the weights and tried to get off the bench, he couldn’t move.
Tests revealed a spinal cord injury, and Hill, who’s now retired from the service, has been living with constant back and leg pain. Diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he was angry all the time and couldn’t sleep—“I was doing a three-days awake, one-day-crash sort of regimen”—and he’d holed up at home, not wanting to see anyone, lack of sleep feeding his anger and rage fueling his lack of sleep. “I was basically a walking injury.”
Hill was in and out of treatment centers, but none of them seemed to help. A four-month stint at the National Center for PTSD in Palo Alto, Calif., helped for a while, but a few months after Hill left the hospital, he says, he was miserable again. The Marine Corps sent him back to the center.
Hill was not optimistic, “really not wanting to be there, you know, thinking that I’ve failed the first time around and so this is gonna be a waste of time,” he says. But he noticed that the environment at the center seemed a little different on his second visit. And some of the men at his group sessions seemed different, too.
“When a guy has PTSD, he has this look,” Hill says. But in registering each face around him, he saw some anomalies: “It’s sort of scowl, scowl, scowl … no scowl. Scowl, scowl, scowl…no scowl. “I’m like, OK, what’s going on with the guys who really look like they don’t need to be here?”
Hill soon realized what the happier-looking patients had in common: They were the ones with dogs by their side
(Then there’s a section in the article about the U.S.Department of Veterans Affairs conducting pilot programs examining the effectiveness of treating veterans suffering from PTSD by letting them help train service dogs for their disabled comrades and researches into occupational therapy programs examining the effects of animal-assisted therapy on soldiers’ moods and transitions to civilian life (and it looks very promising!).
After finding out about the dogs Hill started participating in a dog training program and it marked a fundamental shift in his long recovery process.
And nobody needs to show Christopher Hill the research data; he has his own.
“The pharmaceutical companies don’t want to hear from me,” says Hill, who—like many of the service members who’ve worked with animals—has been able to reduce his medications and wean himself off several of them after working as a trainer and then getting his own service dog, Verde. “They would be out of business if these programs were expanded.”
Even at the National Center for PTSD—a place where sleep disorders are a dime a dozen—Hill’s ongoing insomnia was legendary at the nurses’ station. Every morning brought the same accounting as they recorded the sleep habits of their patients: Patient X slept through the night. Patient Y slept through the night. Patient Z slept through the night. Christopher did not sleep.
In combat, Hill says, “having somebody by your side with a weapon who’s watching your back in a really stressful situation is a great comfort. Well, when you leave that environment, that person is no longer there. You’re on your own.… It’s like you can’t sleep because you [feel like you] have to be up standing your post. And you can’t sleep on your post; that’s endangering everybody’s lives.”
It’s a state of mind, he says, that would likely have taken him years to gradually ease away from. But the first night he had Verde in his room, when a nurse checked to see if Hill was sleeping, the dog let out a tiny growl. To Verde, Hill says, the nurse’s stealthy approach seemed sneaky, and he was letting her know it wasn’t a good idea to sneak up on his buddy.
It wasn’t even conscious, Hill says, but “once he did that, I was like, ‘Hey!’ I just mentally picked up that somebody’s watching my back.”
The result was immediate and dramatic. Within the next few days, four doctors had gathered outside of Hill’s room, all puzzling over the new development, wondering what magical medicine could have caused this astonishing notation in the nurses’ log: Chris slept.