Making It Through The Night

Chris Meyer is not having a good night. Tossing and turning, reliving nightmarish flashes, sometimes even uncomfortable night sweats—all a part of the PTSD which accompanies so many returning service men and women. If left unchecked, an alarming number fall into a depression which, tragically, ends for far too many in suicide.

But Chris is fortunate. Not only is he receiving good medical attention, but he has the constant attention of Jade, his partner, confidant, and safe to say, his love. When Chris is having another debilitating nightmare, Jade is right there to wake him from his torture, to assure him everything is all right and he is safe.

MITTN ChrisYou may be wondering what would be the best way to wake a PTSD suffering person without compounding their fright. Jade has perfected the process—first she nudges Chris a few times with her nose, then her long tongue starts bathing his face. Chris wakes up quickly; the terror abated.

You see, Jade is a service dog—a loving Golden Retriever/Shepherd mix, who was painstakingly trained by Graham Bloem, founder of Shelter to Soldier. But providing care-giving dogs to veterans is only part of the Shelter to Soldier story.

MITTN Jade at the park

Graham scours the many local shelters looking for 40 – 50 pound dogs who he can determine have the temperament and intelligence to respond to training as a service dog. MITTN GrahamAfter checking them for optimal health and getting a head x-ray, many of the dogs he tests don’t make the cut. Many of those who do test well were precariously existing on the euthanasia list because no one wanted to adopt them. Graham then saves them and begins their training.

You may rightly say that this process saves two lives at once: the dog’s and the veteran’s. Win-win! But there’s more to the story.

This isn’t one of those places that just finds a dog, then a veteran, and says “Here you go!” No, Shelter to Soldier spends several thousand dollars per dog for medical care and housing during the 12 to 18 months it takes to thoroughly train them as service dogs.

The veterans go through a careful screening process as well, starting with a doctor’s recommendation to the initial telephone interviews. Then the veteran visits the training facility to see how they interact with dogs—and vice versa. When Graham makes a suitable match, he trains the dog to be sensitive to those issues which plague the veteran.

According to 1st Sgt. Tomas Mondares, his dog Sandy (a female Shepherd/Labrador mix), senses when he gets anxious from seeing shadows after dark. Sometimes he gets easily irritated. That’s when she will side up next to him, ‘herding’ him away from the stimulus and de-escalating the situation. It’s like a friend reminding him that “it’s OK Tomas —just chill”.

MITTN Tomas & Sandy gradBut the training isn’t just for the dogs. No, Graham requires that the veteran actively participate in the training a couple of times a week over a period of months. That way the veteran becomes certified as a dog handler, and the dog intuitively learns about the needs of the veteran. At the end of training there is a graduation ceremony for each veteran and dog, concluding with certificates of completion and competency.

For Chris Meyer, knowing that Jade senses when he is in dire need, and has been taught to push a button to administer medication provides great peace of mind. For Tomas Mondares, who received severe injuries to his back and hip during a deployment, having Sandy help him get up when he can’t on his own is crucial.

Graham served a stint in a pet nutrition store, and then as a dog trainer at a large animal shelter. That’s when he discovered his innate talent for connecting with dogs and training them to be caregivers, and Shelter to Soldier began as a non-profit 2012. To date they have placed nine dogs with veterans, with eight more dogs now in training.

According to Graham’s wife, Kyrie, who takes care of the operating details of the organization, their objective is to train 20 dogs at a time. Clearly there’s a huge need; in fact there’s so many veterans in need of service dogs that they can’t keep up. Until they can get into a larger facility they can’t reach that twenty-in-training goal.

MITTN Jade Chris GradShelter to Soldier calls San Diego County home, where 1.2 million active duty, veterans and families of veterans live. Of the active and veteran ranks, a vast number suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) due to their time in combat zones. Shelter to Soldier does not to treat the veterans—that’s left to the medical institutions. Graham’s approach focuses on preparing the dogs to perform care-giving functions that aid each veteran. He understands that dogs are non-judgmental and give unconditional love; the perfect candidates for the job.

After each dog has been trained and goes home with the veteran, the veteran can call Graham anytime with questions and give him an update on how they’re doing. Shelter to Soldier holds events and get-togethers for the veterans and dogs, as well as refresher courses and further training anytime a need arises.

MITTN Sandy & Tomas 2Does it work? Before he entered the program Tomas Mondares felt he was in a dark place, and just wanted to stay shut in by himself. Now with Sandy he feels so much better that they go out more often, enjoying life together. In fact, he claims that without Graham and Sandy, he would be in a much darker place—or maybe not here at all.

Chris Meyer looked into getting  a service dog from five other programs before settling on Shelter to Soldier. He found StS to be the only one that completely vetted each veteran and each dog’s capabilities to provide the best possible fit. As Chris continues in his rehabilitation, he says he wants to give back to Graham and do some volunteer work with the organization.

How did Graham Bloem decide on this path? Is he a veteran? Is he from a military family? Neither. He was born in South Africa, and immigrated to the US through Canada, later becoming a US citizen. He has never been in the military. He did, however, come to realize that he was really good at training dogs. With all the current and former military in the county having needs, his destiny was obvious.

Graham also runs West Coast K9, a professional dog training business to pay some bills, but the non-profit Shelter to Soldier operation is a labor of love and charity. The challenge to the Board of Directors is how to expand the operation to train more dogs, necessitating a larger facility.

Saving dogs, helping veterans, by someone who immigrated here—how’s that for goodness personified?

MITTN Jade

Tomas says that “family” is defined by love, not necessarily by blood. Using that criteria, then it is safe to say that Sandy is definitely family to Tomas, as Jade is to Chris. The unconditional love these family members give to their human counterparts is their own Goodness Principle.

You can learn more about Shelter to Soldier here.

Beating Alzheimer’s

JamieSeven years ago Jamie Tyrone of Ramona, California seriously thought about taking her own life. To look at this 55 year-old attractive, intelligent, savvy woman full of kindness and grace, you can’t help but wonder why. It seems hard to believe because she has a loving husband and family, friends who think she walks on water and a positive outlook on life. But seven years ago the world came crashing down on this retired nurse.

Since childhood Jamie has witnessed four family members develop and die of Alzheimer’s disease, and then in her adult years her father developed it. Once again she watched a loved one fight, but lose his battle with the brain-ravaging disease. At the time she never thought that she too could be afflicted by the devastating, fatal disease. She didn’t get the genetics connection. Then she participated in a research study to find out her risk for another, unrelated disease. She was shocked to learn that she has two copies of the ApoE4 allele gene (one from each side of her family), which puts her at a 91% risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. She is part of an exclusive, albeit unwanted, club; only two percent of the population inherit two copies of the ApoE4 gene. Developing Alzheimer’s is pretty much a foregone conclusion when you find out something like that.

Jamie’s life came to a halt as anger, despair, fear, and anxiety consumed her. She describes that time as living in a deep, dark hole. Her chances of developing Alzheimer’s is 12 times more likely than the general population; she is also at a very high risk of developing early Alzheimer’s, which usually hits before the age of 60. She had good reason to be depressed. She shut herself off from her husband and everyone else. She began drinking excessively; her anger took a toll on her marriage. Then her husband, Doug Tyrone, an executive at Scripps Health, said “Enough”, telling her that she had to figure out a way to deal with the risk and depression before it destroyed what was left of their marriage.

Jamie knew he was right and that he was giving her a wake-up call, one she couldn’t ignore if she was to save her marriage, and herself. She pulled herself up out of her black hole and pushed herself to get help. She learned that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition brought on with finding out her double gene status. She made a decision. Rather than let herself be consumed by both her probability of developing Alzheimer’s and the PTSD that was ruling her life, she went into therapy, leaned on friends and family and turned to science. She joined a program at the Total Health Center in San Diego led by Dr. David Clayton; a program shaped by a study out of UCLA that showed lifestyle changes can reverse memory loss in dementia patients.  At Dr. Clayton’s urging she began a Paleo diet, began taking numerous supplements, and exercising both her body and mind. She also began volunteering as a lab rat, knowing that her unique gene status could help researchers learn more about the disease and find a way to either stop or prevent it. She joined a long-term study at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix. She spends three days every other year undergoing brain scans, cognitive and memory testing. Jamie also agreed to have her brain donated and autopsied after she passes.

While that seems like a lot of change, Jamie wanted to do more. In 2012 she founded a non-profit group, Beating Alzheimer’s By Embracing Science (BABES), to raise money for research and to educate the public about the insidious disease. Has all this activity helped? Jamie says that making personal changes and founding BABES created a renewed sense of direction and purpose that soothed her wounded soul. Even though she knows that her efforts will not likely save her own life she is content knowing that she is helping others. I’d say that’s about as good an example of The Goodness Principle as I’ve ever heard.

If you met Jamie, who can only be described as giving and loving and compassionate with a smile that lights up the dimmest room, you would never imagine that this woman once stood precariously at the brink of suicide, ready to give up. Maybe it takes standing at the brink to find one’s purpose after learning your future is paved with heartache and uncertainty. For Jamie that brink pushed her to find her purpose, to find her future and at least for the present, a way out of quagmire.