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'A Train Wreck In Slow Motion': San Diego VA Takes Suicidal Vets Off Treatment 2

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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 A local veteran committed suicide. After the San Diego VA moved to take her and other vets off a drug, they considered a lifesaver in the second of a two part investigation. I new source reporter Brad Racino explains how the VA is ignoring repeated warnings from a local doctor that history may soon repeat itself.

Speaker 2: 00:22 It really takes that, uh, horrible anxiety, whatever causes somebody to be so desperate to commit suicide.

Speaker 3: 00:30 Last year, president Trump hyped, a drug for combating veteran suicides

Speaker 2: 00:34 get, and its results are incredible. And

Speaker 3: 00:38 shortly after VA hospitals across the country began using the nasal spray called bravado on depressed and suicidal veterans who have shown resistance to other medications. The San Diego VA is one of those hospitals. And Joel Andrews is one of those veterans.

Speaker 2: 00:54 This is my second treatment. Uh, the first one was just to the medium dose and today was the high dose and it didn't really do anything. Not that I can tell

Speaker 3: 01:07 up until may the army veteran was receiving ketamine injections for his depression and PTSD at the Kadima neuro psychiatry Institute in LA Jolla. That's where dr. David Pfeifle has been treating vets like Andrews with the drug. That's also used as an animal tranquilizer

Speaker 2: 01:23 ketamine came out of left field, um, as an old drug, uh, that had been around for decades as an anesthetic.

Speaker 3: 01:31 The doctor was among the first in the world to start administering ketamine for depression in a clinical setting.

Speaker 2: 01:36 I recognized that this was really something like I've never seen it had limitations for sure, but it also had, um, had characteristics that, uh, we had not seen in terms of the ability to improve people's, uh, major depression, uh, when nothing else did. And also many times to do it very, very rapidly.

Speaker 3: 02:01 The San Diego VA has been referring its vets to Pfeifle for years because VA doctors have seen his results over that time. Dozens of vets have come to rely on the drug.

Speaker 2: 02:11 Okay. It's like depression. You just felt empty inside. And it kind of gets rid of that feeling.

Speaker 3: 02:17 But starting last October, the San Diego VA stopped reauthorizing vets for ketamine treatment at Kadima. They did that without warning the vets or Pfeifle Andrews and others later learned the goal was to transition them all back to the VA for [inaudible] the drug that Trump touted

Speaker 2: 02:35 taking it away is just absolutely unethical. Absolutely unethical.

Speaker 3: 02:39 The news prompted panic among the vets. And one took her life in October because of it emails Pfeifle provided to a new source show. The doctor had warned the VA repeatedly that this could happen.

Speaker 2: 02:51 Uh, I think it was something that was avoidable

Speaker 3: 02:54 after the suicide. The VA moved quickly to renew a contract with Kadima, but shortly after the agency, again began ignoring requests from Pfeifle to renew authorizations for vets. Now that dr. Worries history may repeat itself.

Speaker 2: 03:09 I've never, honestly, I I've never experienced, um, it's such a perplexing unwillingness to just from leaders to just say, let's get the salt given how, uh, how much is at stake.

Speaker 3: 03:27 Whilst bravado has proven to work for some depressed patients, veterans interviewed for this story said, it's not working for them. They want to know why they can't continue with ketamine, but they're not getting answers. And it's frustrating because nobody has it

Speaker 2: 03:42 definitive answers to what the hell's going on with all of this. It's like they're playing some game and they're trying to keep it a secret.

Speaker 3: 03:51 The VA refused to grant an interview for this story, but provided a statement that said the agency had told veterans, and Pfeifle why this was happening. They also said they'd be transitioning bets back to the VA in a phased manner. Those statements are not true. A spokesperson for Congressman Scott Peters told a new source that his office is urging any San Diego veterans being transitioned to [inaudible] against their wishes to contact the Congressman for KPBS. I'm a news source, investigative reporter, Brad Racino,

Speaker 1: 04:22 if you or someone you know, is considering suicide call the national suicide prevention hotline at +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.