Page last updated at 04:41 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

'I had to grieve for my limbs'

By Chris Summers
BBC News

More than 3,600 people were killed during the Troubles. But many more were maimed and traumatised psychologically. Here Dr Michael Patterson, who lost both his arms, tells his story.

Dr Michael Patterson in his office in Belfast
Both my arms were amputated and I was dead for a short time, due to loss of blood
Dr Michael Patterson

Three weeks after getting married in 1981 Michael Patterson, an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), was on a routine patrol in a staunchly republican area of west Belfast.

When a unit of the Provisional IRA fired a rocket-propelled grenade at his armoured Land Rover as it drove along Suffolk Road the driver, Alex Beck, took the full force and was killed instantly.

But the grenade caused massive injuries to Mr Patterson before it passed out the left hand door and exploded in the road.

"I remember hearing a tremendous noise to my left hand side and then I looked down and my arms were gone. My foot was also turned inwards which I knew from my first aid training meant that my femur (thighbone) was broken," he recalls matter-of-factly.

He said: "Both my arms were amputated and I was dead for a short time, due to loss of blood. But I survived. I was told that my physical fitness saved my life. At the time I did a lot of long-distance running and played rugby."

Ironically Dr Patterson should not have been on patrol that day, 28 September 1981.

A colleague cried off because he had paperwork to get through, something which was later to give him a "guilt complex" because of what happened.

Dr Patterson recalls: "I was in hospital for three months, mainly because of my leg. I had to undergo a grieving process for my limbs.

'My wife has been very supportive'

"I had to develop a life as a man without arms and hands. My wife Hazel and I had to learn to know and understand each other and over the years she has been a great support to me."

After having got used to using artificial limbs - he has no right arm but does have a left arm down to the elbow and nerve endings which allow him to operate a hook with surprising dexterity - he decided to go back to school.

"I had left school with only two O levels but I went back and eventually took a degree in psychology and then a PhD before training as a clinical psychologist," he said.

He qualified in 1999 and has become one of the most well-regarded and highly sought-out therapists in the country, specialising in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and phobias.

The Pattersons now have four children, two of whom accompanied them to Buckingham Palace last year when he collected an OBE for his services to healthcare.

'No fear of death'

He has come a long way since that day in 1981 when he suffered a near-death experience.

"I remember being in a dark tunnel with a light at the end of it. I ended up in the light and I felt very much at peace. But I had the sense that it was not my time. Ever since then I have never had a fear of death," he said.

Dr Patterson said he had seen hundreds of people who had been traumatised by an incident during the Troubles.

"The very nature of trauma is that it can shatter your view of the world. The response is often a feeling of helplessness and horror," he said.

He said: "The brain acts a bit like a computer and it files away memories like a computer hard drive.

An RPG fired by Pakistani soldier
The Land Rover's armour was punctured by an RPG similar to this one

"But traumatic memories are stored like a computer virus. If certain keystrokes are made it can suddenly bring them back."

Dr Patterson said his own emotions had been "locked in" for 17 years until he underwent a revolutionary form of therapy, known as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).

"I remember, after the blast, being in the hospital being cuddled by this nurse and I felt like a wee boy with his mother. It all became locked in after that. But after I underwent EMDR it came out and I burst into tears," he said.

Dr Patterson has since become Northern Ireland's leading expert on EMDR.

The Eames Bradley Report is expected to recommend a process of "truth recovery" designed to bring out the truth about certain events.

Seven people were arrested in connection with the attack on Dr Patterson's Land Rover in 1981 but none were ever charged.

Dr Patterson said: "Most people need some form of closure otherwise they are going to be locked into the experience for years.

"Seven people were arrested for that attack but no-one did any time for it. People say to me you should be mad. Have I forgiven them? No, but I've moved on."

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