Veteran turns to unconventional treatment for PTSD

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Knoxville Army veteran Cory McKee has tried dozens of drugs to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and nerve pain, but said nothing has worked. Now, he's prescribed a popular party drug called ketamine to help ease the pain.

It is a class III scheduled drug and is approved for use in hospitals and other medical settings as an anesthetic.

When McKee was just 17 years old, he joined the National Guard.

"It was right after 9/11, and I wanted to go as quickly as possible," he said.

It wasn't long before he was deployed to Iraq.

"We got hit by a suicide bomber March 25, 2005, and that was a pretty bad day," he added.

He was one of the lucky ones. He walked away without any injuries, but he came home with PTSD, vertigo and tinnitus. That was just the beginning.

A few years later, he set up a bonfire in his backyard.

"The fire died down, so I stood up to go to bed and when I stood up my tinnitus started ringing and I got really flushed and I fell face first into the fire," said McKee.

The fire burned most of his body. He lost his right eye and his right arm.

"And that is a trauma that surpasses anything that I could ever imagine," said McKee.

Doctors prescribed him pills to help with the trauma and depression and others to ease the pain.

"When that nerve pain hits, my whole body locks up. It's like getting hit with a sledge hammer," he said. "I've tried so many nerve medicines and they don't work."

Then, his doctor recommended ketamine.

Ketamine was designed in the 1960s as an anesthetic, but has a reputation as a party drug called, "Special K." It's safe when it's used properly, but it's abused as a hallucinogen on the street.

Ketamine clinics are popping up all over the country, stirring up controversy, but also hope as a way to battle mental disease.

"This is an extra option for people who have run out of options, this is helping to treat treatment-resistant conditions," said Katie Walker, a certified registered nurse anesthetist, and co-founder of Revitalist.

Walker and another CRNA, Jenn Hultz, left their jobs at a local hospital to open Revitalist. It's the first ketamine clinic in Tennessee and the only one in the Knoxville area.

"We are seeing huge transformations in these patients. Nationally in research, they show about 70 percent effectiveness in reducing symptoms of depression, PTSD, anxiety, restless leg syndrome, diabetic nephropathy, things that we're treating," said Hultz.

Patients get a low dose of ketamine through an IV. Walker and Hultz say it isn't a chronic treatment, patients typically only receive five or six infusions before treatment is through.

They claim it's not addictive when administered properly and to prevent abuse, they don't send patients home with any drugs, everything is on site.

"Patients go to a mild to moderate dissociative state, that's how we know it's working. Patients are able to go to the bathroom during treatment. They're able to walk themselves out of here. They're awake the entire time. They're talking to us the entire time," said Hultz.

The treatments are not covered by insurance in Tennessee, and the cost of a single infusion is in the $400 range. However, professionals are hoping breakthrough results of the treatment erase that "Special K" stigma and the infusions will soon be FDA approved.

"We've worked incredibly closely with the DEA to make sure we are meeting the very top standards in our practice," added Hultz.

It's giving hope to patients like McKee, who has had a few weeks of treatment. His sessions are getting further and further apart.

"At least with my physical pain it goes away when I'm doing the treatment, but after the treatment is when you notice the mental benefits of it," he said.

He said it's helped ease his depression, PTSD and phantom limb pain. He's also been taken off all of his other medication.

"It could change so many lives, it's changed mine," he said. "It has."