New strategy for an old problem

Ursula Kelly is both an Emory nursing faculty member and a scientist at the Atlanta VAMC
Ursula Kelly is both an Emory nursing faculty member and a scientist at the Atlanta VAMC, filling a “bridge” role to help the two institutions combine strengths in caring for veterans.



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Sandra Hess didn’t like going to the hospital to see her doctor—men seemed to be everywhere there—but she needed medicines for her chronic pain, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping.

When she answered yes to the question about being sexually assaulted while in the military, she was referred to the Atlanta VAMC’s Trauma Recovery Program, one of few such programs in the country with a dedicated military sexual trauma (MST) treatment team.

For most women, trauma-focused psychotherapy—similar to that given combat trauma sufferers—is key to recovery. The 43-year old Hess didn’t make it through the first session. She could not bear to focus on the night 10 years earlier when three fellow soldiers—one of whom she reported to—kidnapped her and passed her among them like she wasn’t even a human being. They threatened her should she dare to report it. And she hadn’t. Instead, she stuffed memories and emotions inside. In the past, other than medications, there was nothing to offer MST survivors who found psychotherapy overwhelming. That may be changing.

Ursula Kelly is a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner on the faculty at Emory and a scientist at the Atlanta VAMC. Her role as a “bridge nurse” was created by the Emory nursing dean and the chief nurse at the VAMC to strengthen the relationship between the two institutions. In 2012, Kelly began offering women like Hess a “trauma-sensitive” yoga program taught by specially trained yoga instructors. Yoga is believed both to tamp down the fight-or-flight response that accompanies post-traumatic stress disorder and to give women a non-threatening way to learn to tolerate suppressed sensations and feelings.

Although data are still being collected, the approach appears to be working for many participants. When Hess began, she had trouble making eye contact with others. After a week, she began to smile. At the end of eight weeks, she was comfortable enough around other people to go to the mall, even visit family she hadn’t seen for years. Most significant, she successfully entered psychotherapy. It’s still early in the study, says Kelly, but preliminary results are promising enough that the Atlanta VAMC has expressed an interest in using the yoga program more widely as a clinical intervention.


The partnership between Emory and the Atlanta VA Medical Center is almost 70 years old. Emory medical faculty provide virtually all physician care and have made the facility one of the nation’s most successful VA centers for research. Emory nursing faculty are now strengthening this partnership, with research programs and a new curriculum designed to offer nursing students insight and experience in veteran care.


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