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Cat soothes PTSD for Vietnam veteran

By Mike Baird - Corpus Christi Caller-Times via Associated Press
Wednesday Nov 5, 2008  

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — A Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder received an unconventional prescription in July.

“John McGahey needs a service pet,” his physician wrote. “He plans on using a cat. This pet is allowed to travel with Mr. McGahey anywhere.”

The last part of the prescription has been the toughest to fill. The 53-year-old former medical corpsman has been denied access to some public places with Patch, his 6-month-old white male service cat.

“It’s not like I’m trying to take an alligator with me,” McGahey said. “I just want people to know service animals can be other than dogs.”

McGahey was first diagnosed in the late 1970s after treatment in Philadelphia Naval Hospital. “I have a lot of flashbacks,” he said. “I get paranoid in public, and petting Patch helps keep me calm. When I’m ripping the bed apart at night he licks me.”

Stress disorder such as McGahey’s develops in some people after an event that caused or threatened serious harm or death, according to the National Institute on Mental Health.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual.” It defines service animals as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability” regardless of whether licensed or certified by a state or local government.

Despite counseling and group treatment, McGahey spiraled downward as he tried to douse his nightmares with alcohol and drug abuse that tore at the fabric of his family. The uncontrolled paranoia alienated his wife, and he lost custody of his children, he said. McGahey rode with motorcycle groups “on roads to nowhere” for several years, he said, “until waking up as a wino on the streets of Los Angeles.”

McGahey escaped his self-abuse, he said, on Jan. 3, 1988, by admitting himself into an abuse treatment program in Walla Walla, Wash. There his diagnosis was again confirmed, and he got help in applying for and receiving disability income while completing a 12-step abuse program.

He said he has remained sober since.

The past 20 years

McGahey has conducted hundreds of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in several states. In Corpus Christi he is known as “Big John” in weekly meetings at Salvation Army, Loaves & Fishes and in the Nueces County Courthouse and Jail.

While passing out hundreds of copies of the “Big Book,” the bible of Alcoholics Anonymous, to help others with sobriety, he has found difficulty helping others learn the rules for service animals, McGahey said. It began at home.

He lives downtown at Sea Gulf Villa Apartments, federally subsidized housing for the elderly and disabled. Manager Wendy Bishop had him fill out paperwork and photographed Patch to allow him to keep his cat without charging a pet deposit.

McGahey first melted the myth that service animals are dogs-only at an H-E-B store. Executive staff contacted store managers where he shops to arrange for him to carry Patch in a pouch the cat has been trained to stay inside.

McGahey and his feline companion also regularly ride Regional Transportation Authority buses, but only after he asked permission, which prompted RTA administrators to look up the Department of Transportation’s stance on service animals for people with disabilities. Federal Transit Administration regulation 49 C.F.R. Part 37 provides that public and private entities, such as taxis, buses and trains, permit service animals to accompany people in their vehicles and facilities.

The first time McGahey toted Patch with him into the Veterans Administration medical clinic, he encountered some resistance. He was required to show a copy of the ADA definition of service animals and his doctor’s prescription, which were photocopied for his file, before he was permitted to keep Patch with him.

Bayfest organizers allowed Patch entry this year after a gate attendant first told McGahey he couldn’t bring in his cat. McGahey said he has not been permitted to take Patch into local restaurants, and he understands that it’s often because of owners’ misunderstanding of federal regulations.

He wants to take Patch to AA meetings, but has been told he can’t bring the feline into the courthouse. And deputies at Nueces County Jail have refused Patch entrance. McGahey understands the jail is not a public place and agrees it may not be allowed because the ADA ruling is specific to “places the public is allowed.” But Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal defended McGahey’s right to courthouse access with his service animal.

“Sometimes bureaucracy gets in the way of common sense,” Neal said. “As long as (McGahey) meets the criteria for ADA, he can carry his cat.”

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