Skip to main content

General enquiries:

(04) 496 6800

|

0800 500 122

Bruce Howat and his wife, Suraya Dewing.

Health & Wellbeing: 'I thought I had it under control'

In 2016, former police officer Bruce Howat moved to Rotorua with his wife to set up a not-for-profit organisation to help Māori youth into apprenticeships. He was on track to be making a difference in the lives of others when his past “tsunamied” back into his life in the form of untreated PTSI (post-traumatic stress injury).

The trigger was the discovery that a man who had violently stabbed him 34 years earlier had murdered two women in Northland in June 2017.

Quinn Patterson, a dangerous loner, had shot a mother and daughter who came to his home to do a rental inspection. Police negotiated with Patterson for four hours before firing tear gas into the house. He fired several rounds from a semi-automatic weapon before a fire erupted in the house, destroying it, and Patterson was found inside dead.

It was the first time Bruce had heard the man’s name since Patterson had been jailed for 18 months for the knife attack on him in 1983.

The memories it rekindled, which he thought he had dealt with, were painful for Bruce. He had spent nearly three weeks in hospital and suffered irreparable nerve damage to his left arm. After his release he suffered nightmares, “except they were during the day”.

“As a staunch cop, I talked to no one about this stuff – too embarrassing. My neighbour was a prison screw at Waikeria and he told me that Patterson was telling everyone that when he got released, he was going to finish me off.”

The nightmares persisted for three years. Despite occasional flashbacks after that, Bruce thought everything was under control. He had developed a successful career as a chief executive and general manager of several organisations.

But he was wrong. In 2017, when he heard the news about Patterson, it sent him into “a right state” and he was unable to sleep.

“I went to my GP, explained what was going on and said I needed something powerful to help me sleep. She offered counselling services, but, as a highly intelligent male, I said, no thanks, I’ll come right very soon. One of the many things I did after leaving Police was to train as a counsellor, so I knew how to fix my mind. How wrong I was!”

As he discovered, “PTSI lurks just below the surface and if left untreated it ends up, as mine did, becoming an acute chronic condition”.

Bruce was contacted by a journalist who wanted to talk to him about his early encounter with the killer. At the end of the interview, she made a comment about the “severity” of his PTSI.

“Steam came out of my ears as I went home in an angry mood. My wife asked what had upset me and when I told her, her response was, ‘You have no idea what you are like to live with’.”

Bruce reflected on that for a couple of weeks before deciding to contact his GP again. He was so scared he would break down in front of her that he wrote a letter instead.

It was the beginning of 18 months of therapy with a psychologist.

Today, Bruce says, he is a “new person”. He’s written a book about his life and given a copy to each of his five children “with a written apology” personalised to each one.

He remains “extremely proud to have worn the ‘blue’ and been part of the elite group known as dog handlers” and credits his police experiences for giving him people skills that are rare in the “brutal corporate jungle”. The PTSI, on the other hand, “was a borderline liability”, one he is glad to have finally confronted.

The stabbing

“I was the on-duty dog handler in Hamilton. I saw this guy who looked like he was up to no good, so I pulled him over to check him out. He quickly scarpered down the road.

I followed him into some bushes and the next thing I knew, we were fighting.

“I didn’t once feel the knife going through me. My first awareness was when I felt hot blood all over me. I thought, ‘Why is he bleeding, I’ve done nothing to him to make him bleed’. Then the penny dropped that it was me who was bleeding.

“What I also didn’t comprehend at the time was that I had already lost the use of my left arm. He had severed the radial arm nerve which controls motor function.

“I used techniques learnt as a dog handler, where you’re used to holding a dog with one hand while restraining an offender with the other. I tried to grab the knife off him… I knew I was bleeding badly by this stage and time was becoming urgent. I had to let him go and, again, I never felt the knife go in me, although I realised it had. When he came back at me, I grabbed the blade with my hand, which is how I ended up with the scars between my fingers.

“I wrenched it off him and threw it away for what felt like 100 yards. I discovered later when I saw the photos in court that it wasn’t even two feet away. [According to court transcripts, the blade was a 33-centimetre hunting knife].

“I handcuffed him, and he was such a little guy, I was actually able to pick him up by his belt.

“I was going to carry him up to the police station that was only about 100 yards away and then I passed out from loss of blood.” – edited extract, NZ Herald video 2017

After leaving Police Bruce became a Presbyterian minister. He shares his story, including his PTSI recovery, in his book, From Dog Collar to Dog Collar (pb, Rangitawa Publishing), available from amazon.com, Kindleand through Rangitawa (email rangitawa@xtra.co.nz).

“PTSI lurks just below the surface and if left untreated it ends up becoming an acute chronic condition.”

 

Latest News

Police News November 2020

Police News MagazineNZPA

Police announces a trial of caps for police officers; coverage of the 85th Annual Conference where the focus was firmly on frontline safety; Health &…

Read More