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The Navy SEAL And His Doctor: An Experimental Brain Treatment Blows Up Two Lives

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Speaker 1: 00:00 The latest investigation from our partner. I knew source explorers and experimental brain treatment that has upended the lives of a San Diego doctor who developed it and of a Navy seal who had a psychotic break after receiving it. The investigation called rewired also looks into how a $10 million gift to study the treatment at UC San Diego was wasted. Joining me now are I knew source reporters, Jill Castellano and Brad Racino to discuss their story. Welcome to you both. Thanks. Thanks for having us. So what is this brain treatment and how does it work? Joe? The brain treatment is called transcranial magnetic stimulation. It's been around for a couple of decades and the way it works is that you place a magnetic coil on the scalp and uh, pulses are sent through the brain and it can cause the brain to fire in a way that it normally does not. So this can be very helpful for people who have all sorts of conditions including depression and OCD and concussions and it's been approved by the FDA, certain machines that deliver it for certain conditions. What Dr. Murphy does though is he offers this treatment in an unusual way. So he says he can personalize this treatment and customize it for your brain by looking at your brain waves, which is not the way this treatment is typically done. And he says it works really well, but there's actually no scientific evidence, no research at all showing or backing up any of dr Murphy's claims that his treatment or version of this treatment actually works. And brand the Navy seal who you've spoken with, what was his experience when he received the treatment?

Speaker 2: 01:31 So his name is John Surmont, he's a San Diego native and he had a really interesting backstory. He, like I said, was a Navy seal, went to Afghanistan and Asia. When he came back, he suffered a lot from PTSD and it was untreated at the time. He didn't really know what was wrong with him. And then in 2013 he had a, he went through a car accident that really worsened and exacerbated that condition as well as gave him a traumatic brain injury, um, and a bunch of other conditions. And he was really, really hurt. He was, um, kind of at his wits end. He didn't know what to do. He was trying therapy. He was experimenting with recreational drugs. He was, uh, trying to get help from his girlfriend at the time, but nothing worked. And he even told us, you know, he was suicidal. Um, he, he was at his wit's end.

Speaker 2: 02:15 And so what happened was the Navy seal foundation got in touch with him, which is, uh, a foundation that helps warriors like him and recommended that he try TMS and they put him in touch with a place to where Dr. Murphy was performing this, this, this treatment. And so John went to displace and had some treatment from Murphy. And over the course of about a year, he was seeing real improvement. He said that everything, his PTSD was better. He was being able to talk to people better. Um, but then what happened after that is kind of what happened. We go into detail within our story, which is he turned to Murphy and Murphy eventually ended up treating him more than 230 times with this novel approach to the brain treatment. John calls himself Murphy's Guinea pig for allowing him to, uh, kind of develop this customized treatment, this customized protocol.

Speaker 2: 03:09 And after 234 treatments, John eventually started displaying some very serious symptoms of mania. He eventually went psychotic. He ended up on the streets of LA for weeks. I'm thinking he was on a mission from God that he was hearing his Navy seal brothers kind of give him commands of what to do. He was house hopping. You got arrested four times at gunpoint and he just had this huge mental break and he attributes it to dr Murphy's treatment. And then our story also goes into kind of the last two years of his fight to regain sanity and to come back and, and you know, see, see his life repaired.

Speaker 1: 03:45 One thing that I think is worth adding is that we talked to the head of the clinical TMS society in America and he points out that yes, mania is a possible side effect of this treatment and that typically what they do is actually stop the treatment or reduce the treatment. If people start showing these symptoms, it does not appear that that happened. In the case of John, we look through his medical records and John Surmont continued to get treatment even as he had these symptoms and they got worse and worse. Wow. So, so what does Dr. Murphy say about Surmont story?

Speaker 2: 04:15 Dr. Murphy had a lot to say about his patient. The main one, the main takeaway that we took from it was that we shouldn't trust John's story, that he's a known psychotic who had a history of mania, who was homeless, who was doing drugs on the streets of LA. When we presented Dr. Murphy with evidence disproving every one of those statements, he then changed his, uh, his tune and said, well, he can't be responsible for remembering the medical history of every one of his patients. He basically was very derogatory toward John, uh, toward his story and blamed John for what happened.

Speaker 1: 04:45 And there was this $10 million donation. Tell me about that. Yeah, there was a $10 million gift that was given to the university for their oncologist, Dr. Kevin Murphy, to study his treatment and to actually show that it was effective. There is a huge controversy around this gift now and there has been an internal investigation being led by the UC president's office all the way in Oakland into this gift and possible misuse of this gift. So there are serious allegations that have been raised in a whistleblower complaint that Dr. Kevin Murphy has been using this money to just advance his private businesses and that investigation is still ongoing. Did anyone at UCFD talk to you about the findings? Well no. They said that they will talk to us after the investigation is complete, that they'll conduct a sit down interview with us and make their findings clear. So hopefully we'll get to the bottom of that someday. So how did this story get started and how did you to figure out all of this?

Speaker 2: 05:37 We got a tip probably more than eight months ago just to look into Dr. Kevin Murphy and that's all all we got. Um, and then for a month it took us to basically break in and find some people to talk. And we have been working on this for the last four or five, six months, just nonstop, uh, to put all of this kind of unbelievable story together. Yeah, no other, this is all we've done very good time. And, uh, there's also a mini documentary with this story. Can you talk to me more about that? Yeah, I'm our photojournalists. So we, Myers has put together a trailer for a mini documentary that we are currently working on. The trailer is available right now@rewire.news source.org. All right. And of course, to explore Jill and Brad's entire investigation, you can go to rewire.news source.org I knew source is an independently funded nonprofit partner of KPBS. Jill. Brett, thank you very much for joining us. Thanks for having us. Thank you.

Speaker 3: 06:36 [inaudible].

inewsource spent more than 13 hours interviewing Dr. Kevin Murphy over several days to understand his history with Navy SEAL Johnathan Surmont and the basis behind his sweeping statements regarding PrTMS. In the end, much of what he said crumbled when confronted by facts.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.