Louisville VA Medical Center
Don’t Ever Give Up – Trauma is not Rare
VA Employee Offers Hope to those Struggling with Mental Health Issues
The door swung shut and locked behind her. Carolyn Furdek, still in her sand- and dust-covered uniform, found herself in the psychiatric unit of a military hospital. Carolyn excelled at challenges. She was a former National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 award-winning swimmer, West Point graduate, four-time Ironman athlete, U.S. Army Officer and skilled combat Veteran. She never expected to “break down” on the battlefield; after all, she had been there plenty of times.
In the middle of her third combat tour in Afghanistan, Carolyn served as the Intelligence Officer of an Engineering Unit based in Kandahar. One of their missions was to build a major road to increase travel opportunities for locals to get medical care and to access election polling. Following a dramatic 48-hour convoy transporting soldiers and Intel equipment, Carolyn shut down mentally and physically. Unable to function, she was medically evacuated off the battlefield for treatment.
Carolyn was determined to recover and was able to rejoin her unit in combat. But a short time later, she experienced a similar “break down” that eventually led to her being medically discharged from the Army – the only workplace she had known and loved. Thus began her decade-long struggle with mental health and a quest for the proper diagnosis and treatment that would, at times, baffle her family and friends.
“The shame in my mind was being perceived as weak. Here I was a highly trained and accomplished officer and I couldn’t hack it. Other people couldn’t see my struggles and didn’t understand. It can be frustrating and embarrassing. I felt like I had failed.”
Things didn’t fall back into place when she came home. She had difficulty transitioning back into civilian life and her career. Despite 14 different diagnoses from military, VA, and community providers over 10 years – she never gave up.
In 2015, Carolyn’s life was forever changed when Tammy Reddington, a VA Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, at the Louisville VA Medical Center came back from a continuing education class and told her about a practitioner who she believed could identify the little-known diagnosis. Tammy consulted with a world-renowned psychiatrist who identified the diagnosis and helped to get all of her providers onboard with an individualized treatment program. Although Carolyn’s diagnosis is recognized in Europe, it is not included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that is widely used in the United States.
The treatment program worked and now it’s been two years. Carolyn hopes that by sharing her story, she might help someone else and challenge our views about mental health.
According to VA’s National Center for PTSD, going through trauma is not rare. About 6 of every 10 men (or 60%) and 5 of every 10 women (or 50%) experience at least one trauma in their lives. About 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7-8% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
“If you are struggling, I want you to know that you are not alone. Don’t be embarrassed or afraid to talk about it. Personal talks with friends or colleagues can be helpful. Get someone on your side to help support you and don’t give up on your care.
“I’ve had lots of doors slammed in my face, but you have to pick yourself up and keep going. It helps to break the stigma…and for generations behind you as well.”
Carolyn, now a practicing Doctor of Physical Therapy, works at the Louisville VA Medical Center. She attributes much of her resilience and success to her mother, a nurse in the Army Reserve for 28 years. VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation program was also instrumental in also getting her on a new career path. These days Carolyn can be found helping VA patients take their first steps out of a hospital bed and get back to leading their lives.
When asked if there is anything that she would like to share with other VA employees, Carolyn said, “Your job is so important. Our nation’s Veterans deserve the best. You are there and making it happen in whatever role you play – whether it’s making copies, emptying the trash cans in the waiting rooms, or holding someone’s hand as they take their last breath. Thank you for what you do every day. I love the passion and dedication to our patients. I am honored to work alongside you.”
If you know someone who needs help or would like more information, please encourage them to contact the National Center for PTSD at https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/where-to-get-help.asp.