Detroit firefighter injured on the job finds relief with ketamine-assisted therapy

Posted at 7:05 AM, Feb 15, 2024

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Zack Lessner loves being a Detroit firefighter, but on January 13, 2023, his world was upended after he was hit by a car on a fire scene.

"I ended up having a traumatic brain injury. And I… had two bulged discs,” He revealed.

But after the physical wounds healed, he struggled with PTSD and depression.

“It was like just being a zombie. That was the best way to put it. And, and you didn't see the sun. You didn't see flowers. It was just, it was horrible,” Lessner said.

Lessner says he began to experience suicidal ideation.

“I had a plan,” he said. ”There was no question about it.”

Zack had been on leave for almost a year, taking Xanax every day to function. Then in December, he decided to try a new approach — psychedelic integration at the Drake Center for Transformative Healing in Franklin.

It starts with guided meditation and then incorporates virtual reality with a shot of ketamine given under the supervision of a doctor.

"And you go to a different world. And, what makes it so differently is they put a mask on you, and then they put music, and the music really leads the way your trip goes is the best way to put it,” Lessner said.

Ketamine is a dissociative, short-acting anesthetic that has some hallucinogenic and antidepressant effects.

“Biochemically, it works by opening a neural channel that floods the brain with a neurotransmitter called glutamate. And that stimulates neuronal activity, causing new connections. And this is where people get flashes of insight,” said Dr. Cassius Drake — the Medical Director of the Drake Center for Transformative Healing in Franklin, Michigan.

Dr. Drake makes sure counseling and other therapies are incorporated in the six-session treatment to help the patient keep that insight for the longterm – and not just during the one-hour experience at the clinic.

“You feel better from having it, but engaging in an ongoing process with structure to support those insights so that you don't lose them, so that you have a container for it that you can keep moving forward, is what we're all about. And that's what really supports long lasting change,” Dr. Drake said.

After 20 years in emergency medicine, Dr. Drake founded this clinic with his wife Jacqueline, an ER nurse who’s now certified in a variety of immersive therapies including meditation, mindfulness, and psychedelic integration as well as facilitating healing through art.

“Art therapy is important because our patients, it's wonderful to be able to recreate what they've experienced. And in our space, or in our practice, we really love to give them different ways that they can express it out,” Jacqueline said.

Ketamine was first approved by the FDA in 1970 as an intravenously or injectable anesthetic for humans and animals. But the DEA says it later became abused as a “club drug” known as “Special K.”

The FDA approved a new nasal spray medication for treatment-resistant depression only available only at a certified doctor’s office or clinic.

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Spravato (esketamine)

Drugs like FDA-approved Spravato (esketamine) nasal spray are used in conjunction with an oral antidepressant for the treatment of depression in adults with treatment-resistant depression.

But on October 10, 2023, the FDA issued a warning about potential risks associated with compounded ketamine products, including oral formulations. They want to remind Americans that ketamine is not FDA approved for the treatment of any psychiatric disorder and should only be used under the care of a health care provider.

Dr. Drake says he does not use any compounded formulations and strongly advocates for in-person treatment with injectable ketamine from reliable sources.

He says much like the Type 2 diabetes drugs Ozempic and Wegovy are being used “off-label” for weight loss, injectable ketamine is being used off-label to treat depression, PTSD, anxiety, and chronic pain.

Zack Lessner is grateful for it.

“It doesn't make you weak to do this. It makes you stronger because, you know, everybody's family needs you, and life needs you. And, you know, if you do this, it just makes life better,” Lessner said.

Lessner returned to full duty with the Detroit Fire Department on January 12th. He thanks DFD for paying for his six-week treatment.

Dr. Drake says this therapy may not be for everyone, including people who’ve had previous psychosis, manic episodes, an active substance issue, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, and some people with chronic health conditions. So, always talk with your doctor first.