ORLANDO, Fla. (WOFL FOX 35) - Veterans and active duty military members are using virtual reality to relive the worst moments of their life in an innovative counseling program being offered for free at the University of Central Florida’s PTSD Clinic.
"It's a very intense program but the advantage is that we can really take care of this disorder and treat this disorder thoroughly and effectively in a short period of time,” said Dr. Deborah Beidel, the founder of UCF Restores, a program that uses a combination of counseling and exposure therapy to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Iraq War veteran Bruce Chambers was one of the first patients to go through the therapy.
“It changed my life and if it can change my life it can change another soldier's life," Chambers said.
The UCF Restores program takes just three weeks. Beidel and her team guide patients through group therapy and virtual reality therapy, putting them back in to the traumatic experiences that changed their lives.
"We're not going to erase that from someone's memory. They're always going to have that image. What we want to do-- and every treatment tries to do-- is eliminate that stress that goes along with that,” Beidel explained.
Her research shows 66 percent of patients find success with the program. That can mean fewer nightmares and less anxiety.
"We're talking about they're not able to drive on I4 because they're afraid everything is an IED on the side of the road...to they're able to drive where ever they please with minimal or no distress,” Beidel said.
The experience that changed Chambers’ life happened in the middle of a 15-month tour in Iraq. He was driving down a road with his unit.
“I hit a 400 pound IED. I was knocked unconscious and then we were ambushed," he said.
When he came to, things got worse.
"I visually saw my buddies run over an IUD and their Bradley go boom, gone,” he recalled.
In Beidel’s lab, virtual reality goggles put Chambers back in the battle vehicle. Headphones allowed him to again hear gunshots ringing out around him.
He sat in a chair on a platform that shook as his therapist’s computer recreated the moment of impact. Smells--such as car exhaust and burning flesh—were piped in. Chambers relived it all over and over again until it no longer bothered him.
"It was upsetting. I cried a lot,” he said.
The Department of Defense originally funded Beidel's program 4 years ago so that she could treat men and women returning from battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The program has grown. Now an endowment allows the university to treat soldiers and veterans of all ages to be treated for free. Room and board are covered for the duration of the three-week program. Patients are responsible for their transportation to the Orlando area.
“I think other people need to hear about this because it’s changing lives,” Chambers said.
PTSD no longer affects him and his family the way it once did.
"He was paranoid a lot. Had paranoia towards law enforcement,” said his fiancée, Beth Rodriguez.
The paranoia caused him to run from a police officer during a traffic stop several years ago. After that—the court said: get therapy or go to jail.
“My mind thinks differently now from what it did,” Chambers said.
And the live he shares with Rodriguez and their kids is different, too.
"I think I became a better father. And a better partner in my relationship. And I think family. Family relationships are better,” he said.
More information about the UCF Restores program can be found here.
The program treats adults who have PTSD—including first-responders and survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando-- and children who have Selective Mutism, or Social Anxiety Disorder.