Heart of Resilience

By manager1 on March 17, 2014
Photo by Buckley Air Force Base Public Affairs

Photo by Buckley Air Force Base Public Affairs

They are unforgettable. Pillars of peak physical conditioning, perfectly polished shrill, and uniformed hats of terror, a drill instructor is a prime example of an indestructible human force. As for hard-charging TSgt Matthew Z, a series of deployments—and all he endured after—eventually leveled him.

Diagnosed with PTSD after back-to-back deployments to the Middle East as a security forces noncommissioned officer, his severe social anxiety troubles were compounded after being assigned remote duty in Greenland.
“One day, in the middle of October, I went in for a teeth cleaning,” says Matt, “and I never had a cavity in my life.” The cleaning lasted no more than two minutes. At Thule Air Base, all military members were treated by non-American physicians and dentists. Several weeks after that dental visit, he noticed an odd change in his heart’s pace—it began to throb even while he was resting.

Deciding to see a doctor, he requested an echocardiogram (EKG) as the chest-related symptoms worsened, but “the doctor told me that my heart wasn’t beating fast enough . . . and turned me away.” Night sweats, burning pain in his legs, and a sharp decline of energy were soon added to his list of physical maladies. With no certain explanation for his seemingly unrelated complications, being turned away from physicians was the only emerging pattern.

About a month later, Matt said his heart continued beating “extremely fast,” but this time he was constantly exhausted and breathing became painful. Upon seeing another doctor, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. But that didn’t seem to cover all the difficulties Matt was experiencing. Two more weeks of rapidly declining health landed him in the ER. After an EKG, X-ray and CT scan, he finally had a physician’s full attention—in fact, several doctors’ attention, all at once. “According to the doctor, all of my results were completely off the charts,” Matt said.

His diagnosis included an extremely severe case of bacterial endocarditis, severe aortic insufficiency, and severe mitral valve regurgitation. “My aortic and mitral valves were completely dissolved and what was left of them was covered in vegetation created by the endocarditis,” he said.  Matt’s was one of the worst cases of congestive heart failure the physician had ever witnessed—in a living patient. He was immediately prepped for emergency surgery.

The operation was rough. Almost indicative of his medical complications until that point, things got worse before they eventually got better. “During surgery my liver completely failed. I went into the beginning stages of renal [kidney] failure . . . My aortic and mitral valves were replaced with mechanical valves.” Live tissue valves were not a transplant option because the bacterial endocarditis would have attacked and dissolved any new valves, just as the bacteria did Matt’s own coronary valves.

It was a long way to recovery after the operation. Not only did Matt have to bounce back from complex heart surgery and extreme lung and breathing difficulties, he would also have to relearn how to assimilate back into everyday social environments. “Going into the store . . . crowds of people would get too close,” Matt said. The panic attacks came more and more frequently. Something had to change.

It was at a meal with three fellow wounded warriors where Matt got “turned around,” and their conversation eventually led him to consider the idea of a service dog. “I was very skeptical about the dogs,” said Matt. He thought it was more “hocus-pocus” than a legitimate form of PTSD therapy. After deciding to be connected with a service dog, Air Compassion for Veterans coordinated his flight from Denver to Spokane. “I didn’t have to worry about anything,” says Matt. “It was just…it was perfect and seamless. Jim [ACV chief of staff] coordinated everything smoothly—no hiccups.”

Upon exiting his arrival gate in Spokane, Matt immediately spotted his service dog, Diane Rose. “I let the bags drop from my shoulder. I wrapped my arms around her and just held her.”

Since meeting Diane Rose, Matt is able to go grocery shopping and much more, again. “The dogs have such a keen sense. She just knows [when a panic attack may come on],” he said. As the anxiety grows, “she just absorbs it all.” Diane Rose—like other service dogs—was trained to put her foot on a veteran’s foot when the dog sensed a veteran’s stress. The paw-to-foot action is a cue for the veteran to pet the dog. These cues are meant to distract and refocus the veteran in tense environments. “For the first time in years, I could finally let my guard down just a little bit . . . she became my lifeline,” Matt said.

After enduring a crucible, the technical sergeant is still standing. And now a writer and public speaker, Matt is, once again, a shining example of leadership. But this time, he teaches on the significance of resiliency.

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  1. Lee

    April 26th, 2014 at 12:22 am

    Dear Sir, Thank you for sharing that story. It confirms what I’ve been thinking about my journey with PTSD and nerve damage. I also have been turned away by doctors simply because they don’t know how to treat it. Your case gives me hope. I’m currently overseas seeking treatment that uncle Sam does not provide. Dogs are truly man’s best friend. I couldn’t live without mine.

    Reply »

    • Jacqueline O'Dell

      April 29th, 2014 at 12:50 pm

      Thank you for posting, Lee. We are honored to assist veterans in need. If you need further information, browse: http://www.aircompassionforveterans.org or call 888-662-6794.

      All the best to you.


  2. Maggie McDonough

    April 29th, 2014 at 12:33 am

    ACV is critical to our program being able to help Veterans obtain their service dogs. The tickets are always carefully planned out to the needs of each and every Veteran. Thank you for helping those that medically need to get to the programs that are helping them heal along their journeys.

    Reply »

    • Jacqueline O'Dell

      April 29th, 2014 at 12:54 pm


      It’s our honor to assist with bridging the gap between servicemember and service dog. When a veteran says how life-changing their experience has been, it motivates us to do all the more for the next veteran.

      Thanks for your post.


  3. Jacqueline O'Dell

    April 29th, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    Glad that you found your way to us.

    Reply »

  4. Jacqueline O'Dell

    April 29th, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    We’re glad you found your way to us.

    Reply »

  5. Rosemary

    December 2nd, 2014 at 05:52 pm

    Matt is our son-in-law. What can I say? Thank you so much!

    Reply »

  6. MarciEllen

    January 14th, 2015 at 08:06 pm

    I would give anything on this entire earth to be as lucky as Lee was to get a service dog or more importantly training for the Puppy I got last December specifically to get him trained as a service dog for me. I have multiple needs for a service dog and I have battled with the VA and they have played games the entire time; eventhough I have provided the regulations to them multiple times stating that Heaven is a Golden Retriever puppy and fits all the guide lines and there is no reason I have had to pay out of pocket for all of his expenses.
    I lost my right upper lobe of my lung and had my fifth rib resected during emergency surgery due to Inavsive Aspergellosis a life threating lung infection/ disease that happens to people with a weak immune system when this dangerous fungus enters their lungs. My lungs are damaged and scared for life and worse now the masses and infiltrates are in my right middle and lower lobes. I am terrified. I have just undergone seven weeks of infussions for my lungs and spent two weeks at the Mayo clinic. The VA would not even pay for the trip. (sad and pathetic since my pulmonologist at Vanderbilt sent me to try to save the rest of my lung) and I already developed COPD from it and have Asthma and lupus. I would be so very very greatful for leads or assistance to train my current puppy or a service dog that is already trained to assist me. I was also hit by a drunk driver on Active Duty and then run over by a truck three years ago and I have difficulty with mobility and fall or loose my balance often due to vertigo and loss of balance.
    My sense of humor and determination keep me going. I refuse to give up. But i do know, a little bit of help will go a long way.

    Reply »

    • suzanne rhodes

      March 3rd, 2015 at 06:45 pm

      Dear MarciEllen,

      I’m sorry to be responding so late to your inquiry. Goodness, you’ve certainly had more than your share of pain and suffering. I’m very sorry for your medical problems and for the trouble you’ve had with the VA. How disheartening that must be. I don’t know of any groups that train a dog already acquired by an individual. The groups we work with provide the animal to qualifying veterans/patients as well as the training. Paws4Vets is a wonderful organization based in Wilmington, NC, but there are many others as well–NEADS, Shepherds for Lost Sheep. You can find these on the Internet. Thank you for your service to our nation. May God bless you and give you the resources you need to keep going. Let me know if I can help further. You can email me at Suzanne.Rhodes@mercymedical.org. I’m the director of public affairs.

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