Christmas day this year was spent at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, Ca visiting Sam and Erin. On the 26th I went into the TBI-Polytrauma center physical therapy/gym with Erin and Sam. He has been going to the gym for a couple of weeks for his physical and occupational therapy. The whole process of getting Sam to the gym is quite extensive. There are usually 3 therapist involved in getting Sam into a sling/pulley/crane device that gently picks him up out of bed and puts him into his wheel chair. The wheel chair has a head rest if needed and can be tilted back if desired to make the patient more comfortable.
I’d like to describe for you, the hour I spent in the gym with Sam. It was very intense. I felt so helpless and at times scared. I had to leave a couple of times to pull myself together. Partly because of Sam, but also because of my experience of the other young men in the room:
Sam isn’t very “sprite” today, (we later found out he wasn’t being given his stimulate medicine this week) but—he is still really impressing me with what he can do in the gym! He spends about 15 minutes on the cycle machine. His feet are strapped in and there is a motor moving the peddles…but, the machine readout indicates how much power the rider is using on their own and it shows Sam is providing 50% of the peddling power! You’ll notice also that even though Sam’s wheelchair has a neck brace, he is not using it. In fact, through the 45 minutes or so we are in the gym, he keeps his head up by himself the whole time. I wonder if he’s showing off for Julie and me?
While we are in the gym, two other TBI patients get wheeled in for their therapy. I want to share with you my experience of these two brave young men because this is really a part of the “war” that isn’t in the newspaper or on the local news; at least, not that I have seen.
Dan (name changed for privacy), doesn’t look a day over 18. He is in the Air Force and is also a victim of an IED attack in Iraq. He doesn’t need the modified wheel chair that Sam needs, but I can tell he is in pretty bad shape. He’s sort of stooped over to the side in his wheel chair and mostly just stares at the floor in front of him. The therapist asks Dan if he knows where he is and why he is here. He speaks in monotones and stares off into space as the therapist speaks to him. She occasionally repeats the questions—but, he does answer her correctly. My daughter leans over to me and tells me Dan has incredible anger issues and is prone to throwing things at the nurses and therapist on his bad days—anger and frustration issues are very common with TBI patients at a certain stage of their recovery. Dan isn’t married so his disabled mother comes occasionally to be with him when she can. One of the local charities provided her with a motorized wheelchair so she can get around the hospital and to/from the Fisher House when she is able to visit.
Mario (again a pseudonym) looks to be about 21 years old. He is in the Army—also recovering from TBI after receiving a bullet in the head in Iraq. Mario has a wife and two young children. The therapist moves a curtain around his therapy area as he is wheeled in for his session. I’m wondering why they are using a curtain, but soon understand. Mario lets out blood curdling screams as the physical therapist starts working on him. The screaming continues for a while—Sam doesn’t seem to mind and continues with his cycling. After a while, I hear giggling and laughter from behind the curtain as Mario says his first word after being wounded, “amore” (love). Little miracles and victories do occur among the despair and anguish in the TBI ward.
This is our new (and mostly hidden) generation of wounded war veterans: so young—so damaged. They will spend the rest of their lives recovering from their wounds. Will they get forgotten like so many Vietnam and Korea era veterans? Welcome to an hour at the TBI Polytrauma center at the VA hospital in Palo Alto.