Politics can divide us. Fact-based local news unites us.

We are relying on readers like you to support this crucial election coverage. Give today and your donation will be doubled.

Or sign up for our email list.

After the San Diego VA cut off an effective drug treatment for veterans at risk of suicide, a close friend of one local vet has started a fundraiser to pay for the treatment at a private clinic.

Shalee Albrecht launched a GoFundMe campaign late last month to raise $50,000 for ketamine treatments at the Kadima Neuropsychiatry Institute in La Jolla.

Why this matters

Nearly a quarter million veterans live in the region covered by the VA San Diego Healthcare System, a publicly funded agency that’s responsible for ensuring veterans who suffer from PTSD, major depression and suicidal thoughts receive the care they need. It currently provides medical services to more than 86,000 veterans in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Ketamine is an anesthetic that’s proved effective in combating suicidal thoughts among patients who haven’t responded to mainstream therapies. The San Diego VA sent dozens of veterans to Kadima for treatment since 2017, but in May began transitioning them in house to an alternative drug called Spravato.

The new treatment is ineffective, according to veterans inewsource interviewed, and the VA has not explained its reasoning beyond providing false and misleading information. A panel of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs began investigating the VA’s decision after inewsource first reported on the change last month.

Army veteran AJ Williams was traumatized by the VA’s decision and “hit bottom really fast,” said Albrecht, who’s been Williams’ friend for over 20 years.

“She has flashes of rage and anger, but it’s mostly just this overwhelming depression and this overwhelming feeling of loss,” Albrecht said.

Williams said she was sexually assaulted during her brief time in the Army and later developed anxiety and major depression. Albrecht remembers Williams went through “pill after pill after pill” to no avail and “couldn’t take it anymore.”

Then the veteran began ketamine treatments at Kadima.

“At first it was kind of a minor difference, very minor, you know. We were skeptical,” Albrecht said.

Then Kadima hit the right dosage, Albrecht said, and she saw a difference immediately.

“She came out of that treatment and was energized and normal and natural,” Albrecht said. “I just sat down and cried. It was that drastic. I just couldn’t help it. I just sat down and cried because I was like, ‘There she is. There is my best friend.’”

Williams joined Albrecht in running errands, taking care of the house, going on walks and playing card games. She was finally “experiencing life, living life and participating in life, not just existing,” Albrecht said.

That changed after the VA’s decision in May. Now, Albrecht said it’s hard to watch her friend, who she calls her sister, overcome with depression and loss.

“I can see her trapped in there, and she wants back out but doesn’t know how to get out,” Albrecht said.

News that the VA was going to stop treatments at Kadima sparked a Navy and Marine pilot to take her life in October. The veteran wrote in her last email to her psychiatrist that the drug was a “lifeline.” Albrecht worries about the same fate for Williams.

Weekly ketamine treatments at Kadima can cost around $20,000 a year. Albrecht and Williams are hoping to squeeze enough from their budget to pay for treatments twice a month, but there are many vets who can’t afford even one, Albrecht said in her online fundraiser.

“That’s who this is for,” she wrote.

Yet even if she raises the $50,000 goal, she said the money wouldn’t go far.

She hopes instead the VA will work with Kadima to provide vets with treatments that work for them.

“These are people that have gone out and done things to protect us here at home,” Albrecht said of the veterans.

“And I don’t want to see our country turn our backs on them.”

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a reporting intern at inewsource. She is also the deputy news editor at UC Santa Barbara’s independent student newspaper, the Daily Nexus. Formerly, Mejías-Pascoe was an intern on the news teams of San Diego CityBeat in 2016 and the Santa Barbara Independent in 2019. Mejías-Pascoe...