“I was in a coma for a while, which wasn’t very nice,” says Paul Wilkie. He reflects for a moment, then grins, enjoying the absurdity. “Not that I knew if it was nice or no, ’cause I was in a coma…”
That he can smile about it is perhaps surprising: Wilkie was in the coma because he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – after 22 years in the Royal Engineers. That he’s here at all, he says, is down to a bouncy, loyal, handsome Springer Spaniel called Irma.
She was the first Bravehound supplied by a small charity of that name based at Erskine, on the Clyde west of Renfrew. It provides dogs for people such as Wilkie who have suffered mental torment as a result of service in the armed forces.
Even Fiona MacDonald, the charity’s founder, admits she does not know quite how the dogs help, but Wilkie sums it up when he says: “I tried to commit suicide twice before: I won’t do that with Irma.”
Bravehound founder and CEO Fiona MacDonald
MacDonald is an opera singer by profession, and established a charity called Glenart as a channel for arts projects to raise cash to help veterans. She noticed veterans she met seemed to fare better if they had dogs, if only because if gave them a reason to get up in the morning, and started Bravehound as an offshoot project.
The idea took off, and two years ago Bravehound became the focus of her work. It’s supplied dogs to a dozen men, with a dozen more under training. Other veterans have brought their own dogs for the training and support Bravehound can give.
On a walk in the woods near the former garden centre where the charity is based, Irma chases balls and splashes in puddles while Wilkie explains his problems. They stem from stresses suffered in amphibious combat and bomb disposal in conflicts all over the world.
PTSD ruined his marriage, and after a spell living rough in the countryside in 2014 he accepted help from forces charity SSAFA and was found a cottage in Guildtown near Perth. He got Irma from the fledgling charity but was then diagnosed with bowel conditions Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis.
“This was in 2016, and I asked doctors why I had got it. They said it’s because you have PTSD. It’s down to stress.”
He needed surgery, had his large bowel removed and then suffered sepsis, which led to the coma. Time spent on a respirator damaged his lungs, and the sepsis scarred his body and wasted his muscles. “When I came out the coma I had major issues getting my fitness back and they said it would take over two years because the sepsis has wrecked my body,” he says. That process is only part-way through, and Wilkie still has PTSD and has suffered anxiety attacks, nightmares, flashbacks and severe depression.
Veteran Paul Wilkie and Irma – Animal Hero award winners 2017
But defiance, a sense of irony and strength of spirit are there when he describes his life: “I live alone with Irma, and my pet duck called North, who thinks Irma is its mother. Who’d have ever thought I’d have a pet duck? I get a lot of support but the best support isn’t a psychologist or a psychiatrist, it’s Irma.”
“She’s trained to help with my PTSD, she’s a companion, she reads me like a book, she knows when I am sad, she knows when I need her support, she’s an amazing dog. Bravehound and Irma have changed my life.”