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Kiaya Bender’s porch is lush with lavender, chamomile, basil, mint and oregano.

The 29-year-old Marine veteran tends to his tomatoes, succulents and a thornless blackberry bush while describing his dream of one day creating a “food forest” with trees of apple and pear.

The assumption that he’ll be alive to see that happen is proof to Bender that the ketamine treatments are working.

Plants grow in Marine veteran Kiaya Bender’s garden at his Vista home, June 25, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Ketamine was developed in the 1960s as an anesthetic. But in the early 2000s, researchers began to notice its tremendous effect on patients with treatment-resistant depression.

They also recognized ketamine’s ability to rapidly reduce suicidal impulses, as it did with Bender.

Marine veteran Kiaya Bender is shown at his home in Vista on June 25, 2020. Bender is concerned about the effects switching to Spravato from ketamine will have on his mental health. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“This is one of the things ketamine did for me,” Bender said while giving a tour of the small garden outside his Vista apartment in June.

The drug “allowed me to stick to something longer than six months and actually pursue a passion, develop goals and a life.”

The San Diego VA has for years referred veterans suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts for ketamine treatment at the Kadima Neuropsychiatry Institute in La Jolla.

Kadima is run by Dr. David Feifel, a former UC San Diego and VA psychiatrist.

Feifel is an expert in ketamine, having administered it for over a decade, and has published several scientific papers on the topic.

Despite San Diego VA psychiatrists lauding Feifel’s success with their vets, the federal agency unexpectedly began notifying patients in May that their time at Kadima would soon come to an end. The plan was to bring them back to the VA system for an alternative drug treatment called Spravato.

Dr. David Feifel talks with Navy veteran Larry McMinn after the veteran’s treatment at the Kadima Neuropsychiatry Institute on May 15, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

VA administrators did this without giving a heads up to their own psychiatrists or to Feifel.

Some veterans were cut off from the drug almost immediately. Bender and others are finishing their course of ketamine at Kadima over the next few weeks or months.

A wave of anxiety, distress and fear has rippled throughout the small group.

Just the idea of losing ketamine in part prompted one veteran, a Navy and Marine pilot, to take her life. Others have also talked about doing the same.

Local Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force veterans have pleaded with VA leadership not to stop a treatment that for the first time gave them hope. Some reached out to patient advocates, congressional leaders, senators and President Donald Trump.

Suicide prevention and veterans

The veteran suicide rate in 2017 was about 28 per 100,000 veterans — a noticeable difference when compared to the national average of 18 per 100,000 people.If you are having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or the San Diego Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240. Other resources are available here.So far, the VA has stayed the course.

inewsource’s emails to the White House have gone unreturned and information requests from VA leadership in Washington, D.C., have been ignored. Local VA leadership and spokespeople have offered no reasonable explanation — to either the vets or inewsource — for why they’ve stopped ketamine treatments at Kadima.

They did offer some explanations, but they were lies.

Bender has only five treatments left at Kadima before going across the street to the VA.

“I’m scared that what they’re doing won’t be enough and that I’ll end up feeling like I did before ketamine,” he told inewsource.

“That’s terrifying to me because I don’t know if I would make it through it again.”

Bender and several other veterans at various stages in their transition from Kadima to the VA want to share their stories with the public. They’d like to provide a first-hand look at how they’re grappling with a sometimes crippling psychiatric disorder while having to fight for their own healthcare within the VA system.

Their stories will be hosted on this webpage.

It will also host updates in our ongoing investigation into the San Diego VA; short posts about different aspects of the topic; photos, video and audio clips from the veterans; and responses from congressional leaders who’ve pledged to help them get the care they say they deserve.

We invite you to read the first three stories in this investigation for a primer:

San Diego VA Moves Suicidal Veterans Off ‘Life-Saving Treatment,’ Against Doctor’s Pleas

June 4, 2020

Federal Probe Underway After San Diego VA Stops Treatment That Helps Suicidal Vets

June 17, 2020F

Records Show San Diego VA Lied About Drug Treatment For Suicidal Vets

June 26, 2020

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– If you’re on Twitter, please follow the hashtag #VAketamine.

– Reach out to the reporter on this series: bradracino@inewsource.org.

Brad Racino is the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri...

Zoë Meyers is a photo and video journalist at inewsource. Zoë loves working as a visual journalist because it gives her the privilege of witnessing moments in people's personal lives and in our community that can enhance our understanding of important stories. When she's not behind the camera,...