'It could make a difference in a lot of dogs': Doctor tries PTSD treatment for first time on animal
By Burt Constable
A service dog for an Iraq War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, gentle Reno developed his own PTSD in November after he was pinned under a crashed van and suffered burns.
"He displayed a lot of anxiety," says owner Sonia Campos-Marchiori, who with her husband, Paul Marchiori, founded the V.E.T. Service Dogs charity that trained Reno and other service dogs. "He was tearing couches up and pulling curtains down."
Suddenly a liability instead of an asset to his veteran in Pennsylvania, Reno returned to the charity in Lyons at the start of this year and the veteran got another service dog.
Reno barks loudly, growls and snarls as he's led into a veterinary clinic in Buffalo Grove.
"But he's very gentle. He never bites," Campos-Marchiori says a moment before Reno nips at the sleeve of veterinarian anesthesiologist Jusmeen Sarkar, who has the dog outfitted with a harness and safety cone. That sudden change in behavior is why the couple is bringing their 2½-year-old German shepherd to undergo a PTSD treatment called a stellate ganglion block that, until Wednesday, had been used only on humans.
"It's never been done before. Maybe we're starting a new trend. It could make a difference in a lot of dogs," says Dr. Eugene Lipov, an anesthesiologist and pain-management pioneer who found a secondary use of the stellate ganglion block as a way to treat hot flashes in women in 2003 in his Hoffman Estates clinic. In 2006, he used his method to help a man with PTSD in the wake of a horrible robbery and beating. Since then, he's treated 550 people, including 220 combat veterans, first responders, and victims of torture and sexual assaults.
Still the subject of medical studies, the treatment isn't covered by the Department of Veterans Assistance and insurance companies, and Lipov started his not-for-profit Global Post Traumatic Stress Injury Foundation to help pay the cost (generally $1,600 to $2,000) for those who can't afford it. The doctor and vet clinic are not charging for Reno's treatment.
It takes more than an hour for sedatives to calm Reno so that the staff can stick a breathing tube down his throat, place him on his back on an operating table and tape him down to keep him in place. Injecting a dye and using X-rays to ensure his needle in the dog's neck next to the spine is in the correct location, Lipov injects an anesthetic often given to women during childbirth. By numbing the stellate ganglion, a collection of nerves found at the level of the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae, Lipov says he can directly target the nerves that regulate the body's "fight-or-flight" response to perceived threats, limiting the feelings of panic and anxiety.
Lipov claims the procedure has an 87 percent success rate in humans and says the shots can last for a few months or several years, with a second injection used in some cases. But will that work the same for a dog?
"Mammals are mammals," says Lipov, who says the procedure basics would remain the same whether he was injecting a human, a dog or a giraffe, which all have seven vertebrae in their necks.
The actual injection takes only a few minutes. As the anesthesia wears off and Reno opens his eyes, Lipov says he's confident his injection hit the right spot because the pupil of the dog's left eye is bigger than the pupil in his right eye. Reno doesn't growl or bark on his way out of the center, but the true test will come the first time he is at home and "hears a rabbit three houses away," quips Paul Marchiori, a retired machinist and village trustee in Lyons.
"He was barking at the garbage truck this morning, but our other dogs were, too. That's normal," Sonia Marchiori says Thursday. "But there's definitely a peaceful look on his face, a more relaxed look."
After a visit Thursday to the dog park, where puppies, other dogs and nearby traffic used to bother Reno, Sonia Campos-Marchiori says Reno still sprints after balls, but he is a changed dog.
"I want to cry," she says, declaring the procedure a success. "Usually if one of the other dogs acts up, Reno would get amped up. But he's relaxed."
The treatment gives new hope for dogs that might otherwise be put down for uncontrollable behavior, says Lipov, who started his Comprehensive PTSD Care Institute of Chicago in Hoffman Estates and now is director of pain management at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.
"I think that's amazing and wonderful," Lipov says after hearing about Reno's new attitude. "We can potentially save the lives of many dogs. This proves once again that PTSD is real and that PTSD is treatable. That's the big take-away here."