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PTSD and Grey’s Anatomy?

March 27, 2009

So last night I was watching TV because my husband is deployed and that is what I do. Grey’s Anatomy came on and I’ll admit that I’ve gotten sucked back into the show this season. Izzy is dying and McDreamy is thinking of quitting and will he propose to Meredith?… good drama! But, the character I have been most intrigued by is Dr. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd). See, Owen is a former Major in the Army, a trauma surgeon for the past 3 years in Iraq (I don’t know how that happens but we are going with it because it is TV and not reality). He’s got some issues and he has just started a relationship with a fellow doctor, Cristina Yang ( Sandra Oh).

The show has been building up to a crescendo with these two for some time. About a month ago there was a story-line with Owen where his fiance shows up to the hospital and is aghast when she sees him because she didn’t know he was back from Iraq. It seems he cut and run on the life he had before his tour(s) in Iraq- not even his mom knows he is home. Two weeks ago Cristina awoke him from a nap and his reaction was violent- he shoved her across the room and she cut her arm. Ever since he showed up on Grey’s there have been glimmers and glimpses into the mental and emotional turmoil he is trying to wade though. Last night however, things came to a head and really cemented his diagnosis of PTSD. (See there is a point to this!)

The show began with Cristina asleep in bed and Owen resting next to her, clearly he adores her and he tenderly covers her up with the blanket as she sleeps. He tries to fall asleep by staring at the rotating blades of the ceiling fan… and he finally does. But moments later we see him straddling Cristina with his hands around her neck, violently choking her, she is trying to scream but she can’t breathe and is gasping for air while clawing at him to get him off of her. His strength is overwhelming and she can’t get his attention- his eyes are glassy and vacant- he doesn’t even flinch when she is hitting him in the face. Finally a roommate breaks in the room and her shouting snaps him out of it. Cristina runs for cover in the bathroom and Owen first looks bewildered but then starts crying, terrified of what he has done.

Later that day, Cristina is confronted by a friend (Dr. Meredith Grey) about needing to get out of this relationship, that is isn’t okay that he hurt her. Her reply was simple: There is something medically wrong with him, she can’t leave him just because he is sick. What if he broke his leg or had a heart attack? Would you ask me to leave him then? Meanwhile Dr. McDreamy tries to talk to Owen after he has a freezing bout on the helipad (seems the rotation of blades- ceiling fan or helicopter- is his trigger), Owen turns into a jerk, though McDreamy (a neurosurgeon) mentions that he can help him with his PTSD, there are new treatments and brain imaging that can help him get over this. Owen said that he managed to come home with no real injuries, he has all his limbs and there are so many who were so much more injured than him. McDreamy tries to tell him that his PTSD is a real injury and that he needs treatment. Owen walks out.

Later, Cristina confronts Owen in the stairwell, he knows there is something really wrong and he is terrified of hurting her, he worries what would have happened if he hadn’t snapped out of it. She is determined to stand by his side, she says that she knows her limits and she can handle this. But the most touching, gut-wrenching and hard to watch scene was at the end of the episode. Cristina and Owen meet in a quiet room, he asks if he can hold her. She says yes and they embrace, they end up make love and afterwords we see her laying  in his arms. She is wide awake and Owen is drifting off to sleep. She wakes him by announcing that she was wrong, she can’t do this, she can’t be with him anymore because she is laying in his arms afraid to fall asleep. Afraid of what he might do.

The show ends with Owen on a CT bed getting ready for a brain scan with Dr. McDreamy at his side…

Did any of you see this episode? What do you think of this depiction of PTSD? Will this raise awareness or does it vilify a veteran? What does it mean that war related PTSD is making it into our pop culture and showing up in living rooms on network TV? Where do you think this story-line will go and how will things end for Owen… or more importantly where would you like to see it go? I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

PS- You can watch this episode online at abc, it is under ‘free episodes’ this one was titled “Elevator Love Letter” from 26 March. I think it will be available to watch after 7pm Central.

UPDATE: Here’s some of the buzz online in the entertainment world about this episode… This from

For starters, I was heaving sobs in under three minutes, despite the fact that I was well-prepared for Owen’s post-traumatic-stress-disorder-induced sleep-choking of Cristina. Callie heard the commotion and broke it up, otherwise things could’ve gone much worse. And that’s just the point. At the risk of getting all public service announcement here, I truly believe this is a fantastic story line to tackle — the phenomenon of post-war night terrors that can endanger your bed partner is very, very real (my Vietnam-vet dad went through this for years, when I was too young to appreciate the strain on both him and my mom), and few people realize (or really want to think about) what soldiers go through once they get home. It helps, in this case, to have a pair of sublime actors handling this sensitive topic. As good as they’ve been at amping up the romance crackling between Owen and Cristina, Kevin McKidd and Sandra Oh brought the Emmy consideration tonight from scene 1.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. Jessica permalink
    March 27, 2009 5:02 pm

    I think its wonderful that Grey’s introduced a PTSD storyline. PTSD is far too common, and yet, I think the general public has very limited knowledge of this condition. By addressing PTSD in pop culture, with skilled actors and beloved characters, I think Grey’s can successfully raise awareness about PTSD without vilifying veterans.

    • March 27, 2009 5:23 pm

      That was my hope too and I am glad they are doing it tactfully, with the whole range of emotions on both sides. Hopefully this will soften and lessen the misconceptions out there and raise awareness in general… and I am hoping that Owen will stay on the show so that we can see this story line progress and evolve. It would be mighty interesting, that’s for sure.

  2. March 27, 2009 7:09 pm

    I’m so glad you posted this!

    Just watched the episode online and oh, I have sort of mixed feelings. On the one hand, of course it’s fantastic that they are taking up this story line. On the other hand I wish they hadn’t jumped to the worst case scenario because that is what people will associate when they hear PTSD. I thought last week’s scene where Cristina woke Owen up suddenly and he was so startled he threw her into a wall was probably more realistic and well, not more probable, but maybe more common. I just get uncomfortable when people automatically associate PTSD with a man strangling a woman…it’s so much more complex than that. Nitpicky note: why does Owen have flashbacks with ceiling fans and helicopter rotors, but not in the steamroom?

    On a totally different note, the Izzy story line is hard for me to watch. One of my dearest friends has Stage 4 cancer and has been in and out of surgeries, so it’s a all a little too real for me. But come on Izzy, I love that you are knitting, but move on from the garter stitch scarf!

    And Bailey’s hair? Fabulous! Derek WITH the beard…*swoon* Derek’s proposal? *double swoon*

    • March 27, 2009 7:15 pm

      Ditto on all points LM!
      I agree that it was unfortunate that it was worst case scenario but then again it is TV and crazy drama gets folks to watch… but I noticed that too about no flashbacks in the boiler room. Odd.

  3. michelle permalink
    March 27, 2009 10:01 pm

    well, first let me say that Grey’s continually puts me in tears every single darn week. And secondly, let me say that Maj Hunt sort of resembles my dh and I have serious drool issues when he’s on screen (crying and drooling, I am quite a sight!) so all that said, I think this is great story line and one that’s almost painful to watch. How many of us wonder if our dh’s are going to come home emotionally wounded? I know I did. And to have a character, a strong, handsome, smart guy being shown with PTSD is a good thing. I think many people tend to think it’s the weak soldiers that get this -but it’s not. (similar to those who think that any mental illness only happens to the weak) It can happen to them all. So I think this is a good character to bring this to light.

    Not having any first hand experience I can’t say for sure, but his portrayal seems real, it feels real. Especially the more subtle signs earlier on.

    I give the story line a thumbs up. obviously, he’ll be cured in a few weeks, which we know isn’t true but it’s still TV, so I’ll forgive them that.

  4. March 27, 2009 11:09 pm

    I’ve been watching this show since it started, so I’m a fan. This story line has been coming, the way that Hunt has been acting since he arrived to work at the hospital. I didn’t expect him to choke Christina, but after that, the helicoptor blades scene made sense. I think this was the first time they showed him on the roof so that could explain why. There’s been a few characters that were written onto the show, only to stay for a fairly short time, so I’m wondering if this is the way they’re going to write him off, or if he’ll be around longer since 2 other actors are about to leave the show (the ones that play Izzie and George).

  5. March 30, 2009 2:31 am

    I don’t know very much about PTSD so I appreciated the episode for what it was – a need to get it out to the general public to realize that it can exist in anyone and anywhere.

    Did you know the Grey’s writers have a blog? Love it! Here’s the one for this episode –

  6. SBG permalink
    June 2, 2009 4:20 pm

    Help promote awareness of PTSD and offer solutions to vets.

  7. Duane Barry permalink
    September 28, 2009 9:56 am

    Thank you for sharing. I have been picking up bits and pieces of this PTSD story line. PTSD can also occur for reasons other than going to war … like a violent near death experience. I was in a motorcycle accident a year ago – hit from behind while coming to a stop – the truck was doing 60mph after skidding for 50ft … hit me square in the back … near death for sure: 2 broken hips, 8 broken vertebrae, 7 broken ribs, a dead kidney … physical recovery has been fantastic. Mental and psychological recovery is a different story. Diagnosed chronic critical PTSD.
    As I watched a piece of the latest episode where the couple is in fron of the doctor … I TOTALLY identified with Owen. Totally.
    I start my journey to heal on Tuesday involving my girlfriend in that meeting too. A long road ahead I am sure.

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