Tyler Skluzacek remembers his dad as a fun, outgoing man before he left to serve in Iraq. When Patrick Skluzacek came home in 2007, says his son, he had changed.
Patrick was being consumed by nightmares. At night his dreams took him back to Fallujah, where he had served in the U.S. Army as a convoy commander. He sweated profusely and thrashed around in his sleep, sometimes violently.
The nightmares were so vivid and so terrible that he feared closing his eyes. The only way he could get to sleep was with vodka and pills, he says.
Patrick’s life began to unwind. His marriage fell apart. “[I] pretty much lost everything,” he says, fighting back tears. “My house, everything, my job, everything went.”
It’s not an unfamiliar story for those who have served in war zones. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 52% of combat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder have nightmares fairly often, compared with 3% of the general public. They take a toll — not just on soldiers, but on their families.
Patrick’s son, however, would give the story a different ending.
A hackathon to help those with PTSD
Tyler was a senior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., in 2015 when he heard about a computer hackathon being held in Washington, D.C. Developers come together over an intense few days to build prototypes to tackle a specific problem. This particular hackathon focused on developing mobile applications to help people with PTSD.
Tyler scraped together his on-campus job earnings and bought a ticket to Washington. During the hackathon, he put together a team to program a smartwatch to detect the onset of night terrors based on the wearer’s heart rate and movement.
The idea, Tyler says, was to use technology to imitate something service dogs were already doing — recognizing a traumatic nightmare and then nudging or licking the person to disrupt the bad dream. He thought the smartwatch could do this with a gentle vibration.
The tricky part was to provide “just enough stimulus to pull them out of the deep REM cycle and allow the sleep to continue unaffected,” Tyler says.
Dad as guinea pig
Getting the app to actually work — to recognize a nightmare and respond with just the right touch — would require a lot of trial and error. But what better test subject than your own dad?
Patrick was game, but the experiment got off to a rocky start. In the early trials, the zapping watch spooked Patrick awake. And because he initially wore the watch around-the-clock, there were some startling readings.
The two break up laughing when they remember what happened when Patrick wore the watch while using an air hammer.
“I still remember you had me wearing it full time,” says Patrick, who lives in Blaine, Minn. “You thought I was having a heart attack because I had the watch on, and you thought my heart rate was 6,000 beats per minute.”
“I was terrified,” says Tyler, who is now a graduate student in computer science at the University of Chicago. “Watching someone’s data 24/7, I feel like is a lot like having a baby. I don’t have a baby. But you’re suddenly very concerned at all hours.”
With constant fine-tuning as his dad slept in the next room, Tyler eventually perfected the algorithm. “Having someone that close to you and knowing exactly when those nightmares happen was super important to training a model like that,” Tyler says.
For Patrick, once they got the formula right, the watch was life-changing. “It was night and day when I put that watch on and it started working.” The vibrations, he says, were “little miracles.”
After years of suffering, Patrick finally found relief. He was able to get his life back. He has remarried and he’s working as a mechanic again. There are the occasional bad dreams, but they no longer rule his life.
More people will soon be able to benefit from Tyler’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 app, which works with an Apple Watch, to treat PTSD-related nightmare disorders. It will soon be available by prescription through the VA.