GOLF’S HEALING HANDS

Golf can be many things for the people who play it. For Peter Bellion and Donna Howard, it has a healing quality as they deal with severe post-traumatic stress injury. 

 

In 1986 two young people entered jobs to serve community and country. One joined the police force, the other the navy. They would each prepare to fight an enemy – one the state road toll, the other any threat to the nation. Little could they have known that one day, some three decades later, their paths would cross and they would find that they were no longer fighting those particular enemies. Instead, a dangerous foe now lurked inside. And golf would be an important ally in their fight to stay alive.

golf healing hands

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Peter Bellion is the current club captain at Huntingdale Golf Club on the Melbourne sandbelt and has previously served as club president. He has been a member of the club for 39 years and was at Oakleigh before that. Golf has been a big part of his life since he was 11. Now it’s an important management strategy in his daily battle with PTSD, increasingly referred to as PTSI or Post Traumatic Stress Injury. 

Donna Howard is a member at Kooringal Golf Club in Altona, 20 minutes south-west from the Melbourne CBD. Unlike Peter, Donna didn’t start golf until after her PTSI surfaced. Initially, playing helped her a lot but as her therapy deepened in intensity, her symptoms became more severe and she left the game. Only after she acquired an assistance dog did she feel able to return. Now she and Ebony participate regularly at Kooringal and beyond, and in 2019 made their joint debut in Sunday metropolitan pennant. Ebony and golf are Donna’s two main tools to conquer the demons within. 

How did they get here, to this place where golf is more than just a game of counting how many shots to get a small ball in a little hole? Theirs is a story of incredible – almost unimaginable – stress, of indomitable courage, and of the strength of the human spirit to reconstruct a life almost destroyed. 

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Peter was in the final year of an engineering degree when he did an investigation project reviewing speed limits on the state’s roads as part of an elective on traffic engineering. It was a pivotal moment in his life. “That project led me down the accident reconstruction/accident investigation path, seeing that this stuff can be worked out, it’s basically just physics and engineering,” he said. 

And so began an illustrious and decorated career within the Victoria Police Major Collision Investigation Group. In his time there he attended over 2000 road fatalities and 20 police deaths, many of which were high profile incidents garnering extensive media coverage. What the general public didn’t see or could know, however, was the devastating amount of carnage involved and the toll it takes on the personnel who deal with it. PTSI doesn’t just happen; it sneaks up insidiously and manifests itself in ways that sufferers initially don’t comprehend. 

On Peter’s watch the Victorian road toll dropped significantly, saving lives and money. But his efforts cost him plenty.

Consider this brutal lead up to his diagnosis (and these are just the big ticket items): in April 2005, two policemen he called friends were killed on the roads just two days apart. The second night Peter had trouble sleeping but did debriefing, thought he was ok and continued his work. 

2006 was a horror year, both personally and professionally. In February, six young people were killed in a crash at Mildura, in mid-year his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, in September seven people were incinerated in a crash at Donald and in November his mother passed away. He took a week off but on his return was called to a job where it started to get very real. The victim was an older woman who looked very much like his mother. The ambulance guy who turned up – also the husband of the victim – reminded him of his father. “I thought, ‘what the hell’s going on here’ and I remember basically crying all that night.” 

2007 dawned no better and it all came to a head. His symptoms were increasing without him understanding their implication. In March he attended Burnley Tunnel where three people died in a fireball after a multi-car pile-up. It was his younger daughter’s birthday. And in June, 11 people were killed when a truck hit a train at Kerang. Two of the victims were young girls at primary school, just as his own daughters were. Another victim was named Matthew as is his son. Kerang was really where it hit hard. “All of a sudden instead of them being a coroner’s number, they became real persons,” he said.

Donna with dog Golf

Uncontrollable shakes, surges of emotion and flashbacks set in. And then, in September, “I was walking along the 13th fairway at Huntingdale, just crying and wondering what was going on”. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder, he was told, and his reports indicated his case was so severe he was unlikely to return to work. 

But with a young family and a mortgage, he pushed himself back after three months. Six of his first seven shifts involved gruelling testimony in court. “It wasn’t exactly an easy return.”

Incredibly, he did another nine years, mostly within the same unit, adding layer upon layer of the same stress. By 2016 he was done. His PTSI was now chronic with 35% traumatic brain injury, major depressive disorder, and psoriasis flaring over 20% of his body.

His career earned him the Australian Police Medal, the National Police Service Medal, the National Medal, the Victoria Police Diligent and Ethical Service Medal and the 2018 Victoria Police Star, given to members seriously injured or killed on duty. He gave the job his all – and it nearly took all of him with it. 

Donna’s tale is no less harrowing. At 17 she started an apprenticeship with the Navy doing aircraft communications, mainly with helicopters. She was one of just six women in her intake of 200. She was stationed at various times and for various duration at Nowra, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne and was attached to HMAS Sydney.

Life can be very challenging for a female in the defence force, and so it was for the young Donna. Her total service covered 19 years, remarkable when you consider that her troubles started during her apprenticeship and continued thereafter. Three times she suffered serious abuse in one form or another and was in Melbourne when she suffered a disabling neck injury. Despite intensive therapy which has helped make inroads into reconciling all that happened, she still struggles to discuss either the abuse or the circumstances surrounding the injury. 

By 2004 she could no longer cope and left the Navy, attempting a parallel career with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). But she was living in denial of symptoms she didn’t understand while also dealing with chronic pain.

 “I realised things were not travelling well in 2006,” she said. Not travelling well means five suicide attempts, 12-14 pills swallowed every day – from Valium to opioids to anti-psychotics – all washed down with significant amounts of alcohol, an average three hospitalisations each year plus a seven-year battle with the Department of Veteran Affairs for recognition of her PTSI. She, too, suffers psoriasis.

Initial relief at her eventual diagnosis in 2009 was not the end of her woes, however. “Talking with my psychiatrist brought a lot of stuff out and in in some respects it made my PTSI worse for a while. That’s when I started not going anywhere or doing anything and drinking a lot more.” For nine long years all she could handle was trips to the doctor or the local coffee shop on her better days. 

As things began to improve, she decided to try golf and enrolled in the Women’s Golf Network then run by Golf Victoria under Erica Kreymborg. Erica arranged for her to trial playing at Kooringal. The trial went well – she won C-Grade, the women members were supportive and encouraging, and she joined on the spot. The golf went along well for a time but her symptoms were still raging – flashbacks and their effects could happen in the middle of a round – and she felt bad relying on her friends to get her through, so she stopped. 

Then she ran into Peter. Both residents of Yarraville, they met by chance in the local coffee shop. Peter was puppy-raising a young Labrador for the Guide Dogs; Donna was considering applying for an assistance dog. They struck up a conversation, discovered they were both golfers and shared their stories of PTSI.

“We have the same injury, just from different war zones,” said Peter.

“It was good to know someone who was having the same struggles and hearing about how he was dealing with it,” said Donna.

Inspired, she contacted Integra, a small charity based in Canberra which specialises in supplying service dogs to veterans and first responders. Integra has been operational since 2016 and despite running only on public donations and corporate philanthropy has been able to supply 60 dogs since inception. Dogs are now working in each of the states and territories. The greatest percentage of them are with army veterans, followed by police officers and other defence and emergency services personnel. Integra’s vision is to reduce veteran and first responder suicide rates and assist those who have served their country to rebuild shattered lives. Dogs are sourced mainly through the Guide Dog programs with some dogs supplied early on who didn’t make it through training as detection dogs for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. 

For Donna, it’s been a game-changer. Literally. With Ebony at her side, she has been able to return to golf and resume or start up other activities. 

“Ebony is task-trained to interrupt my flashbacks, to stand behind me if I’m feeling anxious and blocking me and calming me. Where before I would have a flashback and it could last 10-20 minutes, now Ebony distracts me straight away, so it’s having less of an impact.” Between them, Ebony and golf form the biggest part of Donna’s management strategies. “I wouldn’t be out playing golf if it wasn’t for Ebony.”

Today both Donna and Peter are getting back on track with their lives. Peter busies himself with his role at Huntingdale, playing three times per week when he can, an involvement at his lifesaving club which replaces some of the emergency responder role he misses, and doing an enormous amount of media work campaigning for mental health awareness in the police force and removal of the stigma that unfortunately still surrounds mental illness. Donna, too, does public speaking to advocate for better understanding of PTSI and mental health issues and believes that education is key to going forward with an issue that is dominating society and costing billions of dollars annually. They are still serving community and country, just differently.

Their work includes promoting the benefits of golf for sufferers of mental illness. “Golf is a great outlet,” they agree. “It’s moderate exercise, it’s a healthy pastime, it keeps the mind focussed on something else, it’s socially engaging with other people, having a few laughs, it’s getting out in the sunshine which gives off mood-enhancing serotonin, it helps us to still be able to function and do good things in society.”

Each day can still bring challenges – triggers are everywhere and often when least expected – but both have refined their management strategies so they are able to cope better and show others that there is hope.

So where do they see themselves at this part of their journey with PTSI? 

“I’m a survivor,” said Peter. Considering the number of his colleagues who have been lost to PTSI, that’s no small thing. 

“I’m a champion,” said Donna. “A champion of change, of overcoming, of acceptance of life, and of awareness.” 

That they are. 

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Golf Healing Hands

BREAKOUT: What is PTSI?

PTSI has been around as long as human combat itself. In the earliest surviving major work of literature Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to 2100BC, the main character is haunted by the trauma of his close friend’s death, suffering many of the effects experienced by modern day sufferers of PTSI.

Seemingly, each new war leads to another term to describe the same symptoms. In Europe in the 1600s it was coined nostalgia, a term later applied during the American Civil War. It has also been variously described as shell shock (WW1), battle fatigue, war neurosis and soldier’s heart (WW2) among others. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was first used to describe the distress of US Vietnam veterans in the 1970s and entered the vernacular of the American Psychiatric Association when added to its diagnostic manual of mental disorders in the 1980s. It is increasingly referred to as PTSI to acknowledge it being an injury with physiological as well as psychological impact. 

About 25% of people who are exposed to traumatic events develop PTSI. Not all of them will be military or emergency service personnel; civilians can develop it too, though its prevalence is much higher amongst the former (around 8.3% compared to 5.2%).

About 12% of people living in Australia will experience PTSD or PTSI in their lifetime, likely more. 

Australian Defence Force members who have never deployed experience PTSI at the same rate as those who have. 

Approximately 10% of first responders are estimated to have PTSI, though its prevalence varies across services. First responders include police officers, ambulance officers and paramedics, firefighters and other emergency services personnel. 

An estimated 12% in Australia of Vietnam veterans, 5% of Gulf War veterans and 8% of current service member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) live with PTSI. 

Around 3.5 times more ADF personnel die from suicide than in the course of duty.

First published in Golf Australia magazine February 2020

Photo credits: Golf Australia magazine

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Tee for Two is produced on the Traditional Country of the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation in Victoria and extends its respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging.