View Full Version : Beyond the Purple Heart

11-21-06, 07:13 PM
Beyond the Purple Heart

It's a cliché we hear often: It's a long road to recovery. But in this case, it's absolutely true.

The wounded soldiers and Marines I spoke with have to learn to sit up, walk or even place their new feet on the ground for the first time. And the technology and know-how at Walter Reed Army Medical Center is just what they need to get that fresh start.

Uphill Battle

The eyes of 25-year-old Staff Sgt. Luke Murphy tell a story of pain, defeat and determination. The infantry soldier with the 101st Airborne Division works out in the physical therapy room at Walter Reed five days a week. He says maybe someday, there will be light at the end of the tunnel, but "not right now." Murphy was injured by a roadside bomb and penetrating IED on April 25, 2006 in Sadr City, Iraq. He lost his right leg above the knee, and the other leg was "blown off," but re-attached. After the attack, his foot was found by his left hip, straightened back out and there are now several metal pins holding his leg together. He calls his recovery a "very long, slow uphill battle." Being physical used to come easy to Murphy, but gaining any strength is now a major challenge. When we met in the physical therapy room, he was lifting upper body weights. He says he's trying to gain strength in his arms and legs, but it isn't coming easy. You could tell he is very frustrated by his slower than expected progress but says, "there's no quitting in this arena."

Not a Quitter

Crystal Davis, Specialist with the 54th Engineering Company isn't quitting either. You remember her unbelievable story. She was driving in the suburbs of Ramadi on Jan. 21, 2006 when an IED hit her vehicle. Her left leg was crushed beneath the seat, her right leg was on top of the steering wheel, hanging on by muscles and tissues. One of her legs was put back together again. She lost her other leg, becoming the sixth female amputee from the war in Iraq. Like other, she battles to come back in the physical therapy room at Walter Reed. It took Davis six months just to be able to put her foot and leg down squarely on the ground. She says for every ten steps she takes forward in her rehab, she takes two back, "someway, somehow." But in the long run, she sees that as gaining eight steps. Despite her injuries, Davis says she will finish and succeed her rehabilitation and do everything she used to do. "Oh yes ma'am, I'll run, walk swim, dance, whatever," she says.

The Motivator

While some amputees are still in the throes of pain and in the beginning stages of regaining their strength, others in the physical therapy clinic are much further along.

Meet Army Specialist James Stuck. He was hit by a piece of shrapnel from an IED in Northern Iraq in December, 2005. Stuck lost one of his legs, undergoing a below-the-knee amputation. While he still comes in for therapy as an out-patient, Stuck stops by mostly to motivate others in the clinic. He's come a long way since the attack. He ran the Army 10-miler; he snowboards, skis, kayaks; volunteers as a soccer coach and hopes to get on a paralympic team one day soon. "Once you get your mind right," you can achieve anything, Stuck says. Stuck's recovery was far from easy, but the worst pain is now behind him, and he now only looks forward. Stuck brings this positive attitude to the clinic to show others what is attainable, in time.

A 'Positive Atmosphere'

Most of their determination comes from within, but it's also thanks to motivation and one-on-one treatment by the physical therapists at Walter Reed.

Captain Matthew Scherer is the amputee physical therapy section chief. He says there is a "very positive atmosphere" and a "synergistic effect in the clinic," with the wounded feeding off of each other. Amputees usually spend anywhere from two to three months to up to a year and beyond at the clinic. While at the clinic, physical therapy therapists get to spend a lot of one-on-one time with the patients. The healing process is not just physical -- therapists and the wounded develop great relationships. Therapists become motivators, and the wounded turn to them for someone to talk to.

Because Walter Reed treats the greatest number of amputees from the war, they are often the first ones to implement the latest technological advances. Technology is improving the types of micro-processor knees on prosthetics, and patients here have the opportunity to try out different kinds and choose the technology that suits them the best, Captain Scherer says. One of these types of learner's feet -- the proprio -- is a new variation on lower extremity prosthetics, and allows the foot to "dorsiflex," or have the toes come up automatically, when an amputee walks. The movement can make it easier for amputees to get the feel of walking. In addition to the proprio, there are swimming prosthetics, running foot and leg prosthetics -- all available to amputees at Walter Reed.

Other wounded soldiers and Marines spend their days in the occupational therapy clinic at Walter Reed. Those who lost their hands or fingers come here, to get used to their new prosthetic hands. They can play air hockey, miniature golf and other games, or take part in artwork and sewing in order to strengthen their fingers and hands and re-learn fine motor coordination. There's also a living space, where patients can cook, make their beds, and get used to doing every-day chores before they go home to try it on their own.

State of the Art Motion Analysis Lab

Also here at Walter Reed, there's a state-of-the-art lab that enables amputees to be able to walk as "normally" as possible.

Barri Schnall, the supervisor of the lab, says this technology enables them to take the "guess work" out of the equation. Visible red cameras see reflective markers placed on the patient as he or she walks on a special floor. The right side is compared to the patients' left side as they walk, and the data is then put into a computer program, where it is compared with a "normal" adult walking in the same matter. Besides helping current amputees, Schnall says this research study will also benefit the entire amputee population.

If an amputee's prosthetic begins to bother them for some reason, a lab at Walter Reed makes the correct improvements. In the first year, a new amputee's prosthetic may need to be altered several times, since the limb changes frequently. Not far from the motion analysis lab, certified prosthetists work with equipment in their labs, to make those appropriate changes. Once many improvements are made over a year-long period or longer, amputees eventually go home with a prosthetic made of a carbon fiber weave.

Perhaps a Thanksgiving Feast!

And remember Chief Warrant Officer Jason Forgash, with the U.S. Marine's H and S Company? Sniper fire struck him in the stomach in July, hitting most of his major organs. He had been on a feeding tube ever since, unable to eat or drink. But when we followed up with the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda on his condition, we learned he had an operation and it helped repair many of his wounded organs. And he finally was able to put food in his mouth! In fact, he ate for the first time on the Marine Corps Birthday, Nov. 10. His first piece of food in three and a half months was a piece of birthday cake. He said it was pretty darn good!

The Numbers

More than 20,300 hundred military men and women have been injured so far in the war in Iraq, the Department of Defense says. The U.S. Army has sustained the greatest number of injuries with more than 13,000. Of the Marines, 6,500 have been wounded. The majority of the wounded are 22 years old or younger, followed by 22 to 24 year olds. Some are left paralyzed, brain dead, blinded, severely burned from their injuries. Others lost arms, legs, feet or hands.