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FDA Approves Smart Watch Application To Help Those With PTSD

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Now a story about how a son's invention helped rescue his dad.

PATRICK SKLUZACEK: I am Patrick Skluzacek. I am a master auto technician at a - you know, a small shop. I am a veteran with 22 years in the Army and in the Army Reserve. And I was one tour in Iraq.

ELLIOTT: Today, Patrick Skluzacek lives in Blaine, Minn., Back in 2007, he was serving in the Army as a convoy commander in Fallujah. He saw a lot of things during the war that he couldn't shake.

P SKLUZACEK: The biggest thing, I think, after I got back is even driving down Minnesota roads. You have this, what if? What if that's a bomb? What if that's a bomb? Cheese and crepes (ph), I'm driving by all this trash on the side of the road. And what - could that blow up? Could that blow up? Could that blow up? You're so paranoid from doing this for a whole year. You just can't quit being in the Army.

ELLIOTT: Tyler Skluzacek remembers when his dad's nightmares began.

TYLER SKLUZACEK: My dad is suddenly not sleeping well, very irritable. He was a very irritable man, not like he was before he left. And so it was definitely hard. It was my - all of my high school years and most of my college years, he was kind of in a rough spot like that.

ELLIOTT: But the biggest toll was on Patrick's life.

P SKLUZACEK: Destroyed it pretty much - I lost my wife.

ELLIOTT: In a divorce.

P SKLUZACEK: I didn't get to see my family. The only way I could sleep was to - vodka and pills - pretty much lost everything, you know, my house, everything, my job. Everything went.

ELLIOTT: His father's downfall was painful for Tyler. During his senior year in college, he heard about a computer hackathon, a marathon event where developers come together to work on a project. This one was devoted to finding ways to help people with PTSD.

T SKLUZACEK: So I took my meager senior-year salary and went to the competition, where I met some brilliant psychiatrists and doctors, mostly out of various VAs around the country, and built a small team. And we developed this application. It's a smartwatch application that monitors PTSD symptoms while someone sleeps but also provides, like, gentle interruptions in order to try to pull them out of the sleep with haptic feedback or vibrations to the wrist.

ELLIOTT: Tyler was using technology to imitate something service animals were already doing, recognizing a traumatic nightmare and then nudging or licking the person to disrupt the bad dream. The smartwatch does this with a gentle vibration. But there was some trial and error to get just the right calibration. And for that, Tyler used his dad as a guinea pig.

T SKLUZACEK: He had to endure a lot of bad versions of the application, as you can imagine, right? No application is perfect on the first try. It was iteration, iteration, iteration. I think he says, like, iteration - what do you say - iterations five or seven or nine or something, it finally stopped spooking you awake or was providing just enough stimulus to pull you out of the traumatic situation.

P SKLUZACEK: I still remember, though, when I - you had me wear it full-time, and I had my air hammer at work. And you thought I was having a heart attack because I was - had the watch on. And you thought my heart rate was 6,000 beats per minute.

T SKLUZACEK: Yeah. I was terrified. Watching someone's data 24/7, I feel like, is a lot like having a baby. I don't have a baby, but, like, you're suddenly very concerned at all hours.

ELLIOTT: But, eventually, father and son working together hit upon the right formula.

T SKLUZACEK: It was honestly pretty incredible to have done something for my dad that, you know, positively influenced his life and using technology. So I'm a big tech guy. And being able to make someone's life better and use technology was just a win-win.

ELLIOTT: After years of suffering, Patrick Skluzacek finally found relief. He was able to get his life back. He has remarried. And he's working again. He still has the occasional bad dream, but they don't rule his life.

P SKLUZACEK: It was night and day when I put that watch on, and it started working. There are some bad nights out there regardless with the watch or not. That's hard even for a little watch to break up a nightmare. You know, but mostly rarely, rarely woke up at night, rarely.

ELLIOTT: More people will soon be able to benefit from Tyler Skluzacek's invention. An investor purchased the rights to the app and started a company called NightWare. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved the device to treat PTSD-related nightmare disorder. It will soon be available through the Veterans Administration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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