On 13 March 2016 a group of more than 100 veterans, relatives, health practitioners and Australian Defence Force officials attended a forum in Townsville, Queensland, to discuss the adverse health effects of mefloquine and tafenoquine. The event was hosted by Townsville RSL, opened by Townsville Mayor Cr Jenny Hill, and chaired by retired Australian Army Colonel Ray Martin (who has since become a spokesman for ADSO). This is believed to be a world first event – a public forum on this subject attended by both senior government officials and affected veterans. Speakers included Air Vice-Marshal Tracy Smart, Dr Jane Quinn, Dr Remington Nevin, Major Stuart McCarthy and Mrs Lavina Salter, who organised the event. The forum was also attended by Mr Ewen Jones MP, however the Department of Veterans Affairs declined an invitation to attend.
Lavina Salter is the dedicated wife of an Australian Army veteran who has been severely affected by chronic mefloquine toxicity. Here is the powerful speech that she delivered to the forum, describing the impact of this illness on veterans and families, and urging the government to implement an outreach program to help those affected. Those who attended the forum were privileged to hear her moving speech and we are all proud of her courageous efforts.
Thank you to everyone who has come here today. My name is Lavina and I am the wife of a soldier who served his country for nearly 18 years. Today I am going to tell you my story.
Firstly I just wanted to give you a brief outline. My husband served almost 18 years in the ADF and deployed on three separate occasions to East Timor. After the first trip he was diagnosed with mild depression. Prior to his second trip he was taking anti-depressants, which needed to be stopped before deploying. He stopped the medication in preparation for deployment. It was at this time he was required to participate in the drug trials. Given his medical background at the time, he should have been excluded. He did not receive a proper medical assessment prior to being given the medication. During his deployment he had a breakdown and was taken off Mefloquine.
Mid 2006, not long after the premature birth of our son, an extended family member took his life. This was the first time suicide and depression had entered my life. I’d heard about it on the news occasionally but it had never been as close as it was then. Over the months that followed, the suicide seemed to engulf my husband’s mind. Suicide was on his every thought. Little did I know that he was feeling like this? How was I to know? There was no sign on his head that said “I am feeling depressed and suicidal”. There was no rash or inflammation. He didn’t look any different; he still got up and went to work every day.
There was no physical pain; but there was pain. He didn’t know where to turn and he was stuck. He feared putting his hand up and asking for help because he would lose his job and his mates would think he was nuts. He used alcohol to self-medicate, often a whole carton of beer or 5 bottles of wine every night. I recall the first time he mentioned the hallucinations, although I had no idea at the time what they were and just put that down to him being blind rotten drunk. Some nights I used to cry myself to sleep not knowing what to do or who to turn to. Other nights I would think of elaborate plans to get him to stop drinking and come to bed. I often poured the beer and wine down the drain so he couldn’t finish the carton. I was angry at him and couldn’t understand why he was doing this to himself.
It finally got too much for him. He realised he needed help. We sat down and talked and he opened up to me. I was devastated for him, he was so scared. I had no idea how difficult it was for him to just put his hand up and ask for help. Surely the army would understand? He was just sick and needed treatment. I went with him to the MO and within 2 weeks he was in a mental health facility being treated for PTSD, major depression, anxiety and alcoholism. Here I was in a city I barely knew with a little baby, working every day and hardly any support. His family was there but they didn’t know how to handle something like this. There was no support from defence, no offerings of services that could assist what we were going through. No-one rang to see if we were ok. He was just in hospital on sick leave and that was that. I was scared and alone. The only help available was for him. There was a no help for me. No-one could tell me what was happening to him and why.
Almost every day I went to the hospital to see him, and I cried every day as I drove home; often having to pull over because I couldn’t see the road beyond the tears. He spent eight weeks in hospital that first time. When he came home he had no support apart from that of VVCS. I worried every day I went to work. Constant fears of whether I was going to find my husband dead when I got home filled my mind. Is today the day that it has finally gotten too much for him?
As the months passed by it was time for him to make a decision regarding his career. There was no help or support offered to us as a family to make an informed decision about what would happen next. In the end he had 2 choices. He could apply for a medical discharge or the med board would medically discharge him. Not a lot of choice for a Sergeant who was looking forward to being posted out at the end of the year, anticipating his next promotion. For him this felt like a kick in the guts being pushed out of the family that he belonged to for such a long time. Rejected by those he served. The sad part about this is that if you asked him today to put cams on he would be there in a heartbeat. That’s how much he loved being a soldier, how dedicated he was and how proud he was as a man to serve his country.
Fast forward to March 2011, life was generally pretty good and the medication was doing its job. One day I noticed some odd behaviour. He had relapsed. He started drinking excessively and started having hallucinations again. Feelings of anxiety rushed through me as I worked quickly to get him to hospital to get treatment. He was sent to Cairns to get treatment because Townsville, although one of the largest garrison cities in Australia, did not have the facilities to treat veterans for these afflictions. The doctors then transferred him to a
hospital in Brisbane because his depression was so bad they felt they couldn’t treat it there. He has been in and out of hospital since 2011, admitted so many times I can’t recall because each admission seems to roll into the next. The longest time without a hospital admission so far, is just under 6 months. He has been admitted to hospitals all over Australia. Cairns, Brisbane Adelaide. It is extremely hard to care for a loved one who is in a town so far away. All they want and need is their family support.
The impact this has had on our children is massive. Our kids can’t sneak up behind daddy because he gets very anxious. It takes a lot of energy for him to get out of bed and through a day, let alone kick the soccer ball or entertain our daughter. Our son has had to learn over the years that dad is not like the other dads. He had something bad happen and it made him sick. Dad gets tired very quickly and sometimes very cranky. It’s been difficult to give him just enough information to satisfy his curiosity and understanding without telling him the full truth. I dread the day when he finds out that his dad has attempted suicide more times than I can count on one hand. I just know that he would be angry and feel betrayed. There have been birthdays that my husband has missed out on because he has been in hospital. Our son struggles to understand why dad is ok one day and in hospital the next. He doesn’t know that while he was asleep, his dad overdosed and the ambulance took him to hospital.
Over the years I have lost my best mate. Every time he went to hospital he would come out a different person. I have had to grieve over the loss of my husband at least 3 times in our 10 years together. We met after his deployments but before his illness took over. The man I met and fell in love with is long gone. His soul died many years ago. The man I had our first baby with is long gone too; the happiest, proudest dad in the world. The man I married, well he’s gone too. His memory is so bad now that he doesn’t remember our son’s birth or wedding day. He can look at pictures for hours and there is nothing that he can recall. My biggest regret is not getting someone to film our wedding. At least then he could watch it and know how happy he was that day. Personality traits have changed over the years too. It’s hard sharing a joke with someone who doesn’t laugh or smile. He doesn’t take well to change, he doesn’t like crowds and we don’t have friends over because he doesn’t feel comfortable. I often decline going to my friends places for get-togethers because he won’t come along. I am very proud of my husband and wish I could share in these events with him but when I arrive with no husband it’s hard to tell people why. He gets very anxious around new people.
When my father suddenly passed away last year he couldn’t be there for me because he was in hospital getting treatment. Do you know how hard that was for me? To not have my husband’s support and comfort when I needed it most. Could you imagine how difficult that was for him? He had such a hard a time coping with the fact that he couldn’t support me in my time of need. I don’t blame him for not being there, I blame the illness. It has taken so much away from our family. Years of dealing with the constant pressures of his illness, the suicidal death of my brother and my fathers unexpected passing finally took its toll on me. I am now on anti-depressants myself and suffer from high blood pressure. The sad truth I live with now is that is it fairly normal for my husband to slump into depressions so bad that he is at a high risk of taking his life. It is normal for me to stay up all night to make sure he doesn’t get hold of any drugs to overdose on. These are extreme circumstances and no-one should ever feel like these are normal things to live with.
For a long time I blamed myself for him being so sick. I should have gotten him help earlier. If I had then it may not have been so bad and long lasting. The only way I could forgive myself was to “fix” my husband, find him a cure. Over the years I read up on various treatments for PTSD, various drugs and alternative therapies. I had even convinced a doctor to try a treatment that is not even used in Australia. My determination to fix my husband has been steadfast. For years I had a gut feeling that there was something more to his PTSD. The meds that usually worked for others didn’t seem to work for him.
In January this year I came across an article that took my interest. It was about Mefloquine. I knew he took it when he went to Timor and it made him sick so he had to change medication. The more I read about this, the more I believe that Mefloquine has played a huge role in his mental afflictions. In true form of finding a fix, I went into action when he was taken to hospital in early January; I spoke to the doctors about getting him tested. The doctors knew nothing. They didn’t know what side effects it caused. And if they don’t know, then how was my husband supposed to get tested and get treatment. This was the primary reason I have been so determined to bring awareness to this issue. If there is no way of diagnosing this illness, no research into how it affects the brain and no way of knowing what or how it can be treated then how can he get the correct treatment to be able to move on with his life. He served this country like many of those in this room. All he wants is to live a life that is as normal as possible.
My plea to you Air Vice Marshall is simply this. Please establish an outreach program to identify the soldiers who have been exposed to these drugs. Right now, these soldiers, the people you have served alongside of for years need your help now more than ever. Please ban the use of these drugs indefinitely so it never has the opportunity to ruin anyone else’s life. There are other drugs available to treat malaria with less harmful side effects. And finally, ban the use of clinical trials on ADF personnel.
These men and women serve our country and our people, they deserve nothing but the best.