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'A Train Wreck In Slow Motion': San Diego VA Takes Suicidal Vets Off Treatment

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Ketamine has shown promise in derailing suicidal thoughts among patients resistant to other treatments. The San Diego VA has started pulling veterans off the drug to treat them instead with a controversial nasal spray promoted by President Trump.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The San Diego VA is removing suicidal veterans from a lifesaving drug and transitioning them to a controversial nasal spray promoted last year by president Donald Trump, one local veteran has taken her life following the treatment change. Here's our news source reporter Brad Racino with the first of his two-part investigation,

Speaker 2: 00:19 long known as a horse tranquilizer or party drug ketamine has shown great promise over the past two decades in derailing suicidal thoughts among patients resistant to other treatments.

Speaker 1: 00:31 Ketamine is my miracle drug.

Speaker 2: 00:34 Larry McMillan is a 51 year old Navy veteran. Who's abusive childhood has caused decades of despair, anxiety and PTSD.

Speaker 1: 00:42 Ketamine is what makes me feel normal. And I it's hard getting used to that feeling after suffering from depression for 30 years, because I didn't know how people enjoyed life and wanted to live. I couldn't comprehend that

Speaker 2: 01:03 since 2017, the San Diego VA has referred dozens of depressed and suicidal veterans like men to the Kadima neuropsychiatry Institute in LA Jolla at Kadima doctors inject ketamine and monitor patients as they enter into a psychedelic state

Speaker 3: 01:22 [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 01:23 that's McMahon coming to after Academy and treatment in mid may experts. Aren't completely sure how it works, but research and clinical practice have shown ketamine achieves faster results than antidepressants and with a higher response rate

Speaker 4: 01:38 now, by no means is ketamine work for everybody.

Speaker 2: 01:41 Dr. David Pfeifle is a psychiatrist and Kadima is founder. He's also a recognized expert in the use of ketamine for mental illness. He says he's seen veterans who have not benefited from his treatment.

Speaker 4: 01:54 We had so many that have that, that we were getting more and more, uh, more and more vets referred to us.

Speaker 2: 02:01 But last September, the San Diego VA suddenly stopped reauthorizing veterans for treatment at Kadima. They did not consult with Pfeifle or with the veterans psychiatrist at the VA. In some cases that's were told less than 24 hours before a scheduled appointment that the ketamine they'd relied on for years would no longer be an option. AIG Miller is an army veteran and one of those patients,

Speaker 5: 02:26 and I was basically told that it was either their way or the highway. I was not consulted. I was not asked if I was, if I wanted to do this, I was not given a choice.

Speaker 2: 02:42 Fear began to spread among the vets that Kadima and Pfeifle urged the VA to rethink its actions. He said the consequences would be disastrous and he was right.

Speaker 4: 02:53 And, uh, unfortunately, um, something horrible did happen

Speaker 2: 02:58 in mid-October a San Diego veteran who served as a Marine captain, took her life in her last email to Pfeifle. She said the San Diego VA had made her decision easy.

Speaker 4: 03:09 It was a huge tragedy, huge loss. Um, uh, I think it was something that was avoidable

Speaker 2: 03:16 the day after the suicide. The VA had good news for Pfeifle. All the paperwork had been submitted and veterans were good to continue treatment at Kadima.

Speaker 4: 03:24 I figured if there's a silver lining to this horrible, horrible tragedy is that, you know, the VA now understands what what's at stake here. And hopefully things will, will, will, will get the attention they need, but it didn't

Speaker 2: 03:43 coming up tomorrow. Veterans are moved to a controversial alternative to ketamine promoted by president Donald Trump.

Speaker 6: 03:49 It really takes that, uh, horrible anxiety, whatever causes somebody to be so desperate to commit suicide. You take it, it's an inhaler and you take it and its results are incredible.

Speaker 2: 04:03 But veterans say the drug isn't working.

Speaker 1: 04:06 I signed a blank check for my life to defend my country. Now that I need them. They're not there for me. And it's not right

Speaker 2: 04:18 for KPBS. I'm a news source. Investigative reporter, Brad Racino,

Speaker 1: 04:23 if you or someone you know, is considering suicide call the national suicide prevention hotline. It's +1 800-273-8255.

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

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.