Man who suffered night terrors helped by service dog

Tuesday, September 14, 2010 | 12:10 p.m. CDT; updated 1:35 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 14, 2010

SHAWNEE, Kan. — Brian Holdeman stirred in his sleep, pawing at his arms and chest.

"Get it off me!" he screamed.

It was the blood.

Deep in a dream, he was in the middle of a horrifying scene. Trauma center. Small boy. Life-threatening injury.

He hurried to help save the young life. As he looked into the frightened boy's eyes, the child stopped breathing.

"Code blue!" someone yelled.

Think, Brian.

It was hard. The blood wouldn't stop. It came in waves, turning his hands and forearms red.

This was no nightmare. Nightmares are bad dreams about things that aren't real. This was all real. As a former pediatric trauma nurse, Holdeman had experienced such scenes before. Now he was reliving them in all their pulse-pounding reality.

Doctors call them night terrors.

Holdeman called them torture.

The dreams, often a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatized him the same way some soldiers are traumatized by war memories.

Night terrors are rare, with just 2 percent of adults experiencing them, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The Mayo Clinic describes night terrors as "episodes of fear, flailing and screaming while asleep."

Sometimes Holdeman dreamed of injured children. Other times it was the distraught mother who blamed him for her daughter's death.

Holdeman's wife understands his demons.

"Brian's greatest strength is his ability to put himself in someone else's shoes — his empathy," said Tanis Holdeman, also a pediatric nurse. "But when it comes to caring for a dying child, if you become too empathetic you could lose yourself ... and it could be harmful."

Brian Holdeman — who worked at an Oklahoma children's hospital and at the University of Kansas Hospital in the 1990s — changed careers in 2000. Pediatric nursing was too much. He wanted to be a doctor and wanted to help people, but he knew he needed to avoid traumatic situations. So he became a chiropractor and eventually went on to work with the Kansas City Wizards pro soccer team. He tried to put the memories behind him.

For years he succeeded.

Or so he thought.

"Once our (two sons) got to the age of the children he'd cared for, he started getting these intense night terrors," his wife said. One night, when a thunderclap awakened her, she noticed Brian wasn't in bed. She found him downstairs in their Shawnee split level, slouched and sobbing in front of a dining room window.

"He had a dream that our youngest son drowned in the flash flood near our house," she said. "It took me 15 minutes to convince him it hadn't happened."

In 2007, his dreams grew so dark they threatened to ruin his life — even take it. He became afraid to go to sleep. Some nights he got only two or three hours sleep. Other nights, none. And he paid the price. That same year he got pneumonia, was hospitalized and almost died.

He needed a miracle.

That's when, the soft-spoken son of a Methodist pastor will tell you, God stepped in and gave him one.

With a wet nose.

"Before I went in the hospital I read an article about service dogs and how they were used for a lot of different things," he said. "I got on the Internet and started searching."

His search led him to Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education & Services in Concordia, Kan. The center was one of the few places that trained dogs to help with post-traumatic stress.

Finally, there was hope.

There also was a two-year wait.

Holdeman's heart sank. He couldn't wait two years.

But he put his name on the list and started praying.

A week went by with no word. Then another. Finally a woman called back with good news.

"I'll have a dog for you in six months," she said.

He kept praying — every day, and every night.

Two weeks later she called and said, "I'll have a dog for you next class!"

He closed his eyes at the memory.

"God still answers prayers," he said. "Don't give up hope."

Excited, he drove to Concordia to meet his new friend.

"She walked in and I was taken aback," he said. "She was just the prettiest German shepherd I've ever seen."

Her name was Sylbi.

The brown-eyed dog had learned to do what no doctor could — help Holdeman dash his demons.

"When he's having a night terror, Sylbi is detecting the change in his heart rate, his blood pressure, and his perspiration," said Sarah Holbert of CARES.


She can smell it.

"A dog's sense of smell is so sensitive, it can smell a teaspoon of vitamin C in a thousand gallons of water," Holbert said. "All we're doing is just picking a different odor we want them to detect."

Now in its 16th year, Sylbi's program has placed more than 900 dogs of all breeds in 39 states and five foreign countries.

"We try to make the best match possible," Holbert said. "It's not a one-size-fits-all deal."

Getting a service dog is neither easy nor cheap. First, you need a recommendation from a doctor. Next, you must wait. One to two years is typical. Finally, there's cost. The program Sylbi came from, which relies on private donations, charges $2,500.

For Holdeman, Sylbi is worth every penny. She is his sleep sentry. Now 5 years old and 90 pounds, she naps much of the day. But at night, when she smells trouble, she'll jump on Holdeman's bed and nudge him under his chin, or lick his face until he wakes up. That simple act breaks the spell of an oncoming night terror, and allows him to get the peaceful sleep he needs.

"The first night I had her, she woke me up four times an hour," he said.

Holdeman takes Sylbi to work every day. Even when she naps, her ears never go down, signifying that she's always on guard for Holdeman.

Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad knows Sylbi makes a huge difference in Holdeman's life.

"He wasn't sleeping, he lacked energy, looked pale and just didn't have that spark," he said. "But once Sylbi came along he snapped back to being himself. If he's my miracle worker, then Sylbi is definitely his."

To Holdeman, Sylbi is much more than a pet.

"She saved my life. I have no doubt I would have died."


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