Heart of Resilience
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.