27 December, 2005

Travelogue II: The VA Hospital, pt. 3

Part 1
Part 2

He was in a reclining wheelchair, and both ankles were in casts, with ugly scars running up his calves. During the speeches, I had watched him suffering severe muscle spasms that I knew were painful, as his mother held his head in her hands so that he could see what was happening. From observing all of this, and noticing his eyes didn't focus very well and hearing him grunt, I knew he likely had severe nerve/brain damage. Silently chastising myself for having previously chickened out, I walked right up and sat down next to his chair. Though he did not turn towards me, I told him the laptop was for him, and asked his mother where I should put it. Supporting his head and turning it to me, his mother told me to place it on his lap and show him the screen. I really couldn't tell if he knew what was going on or not. His mother spoke to him as she might a child, pointing out the objects on the screen, and talking about how exciting it was. She supported his hand as he seemed to strain to move his spasmed fist towards the laptop. It seemed that she almost forgot I was there, so I said something about the laptop being an expression of gratitude and love, then moved on. However, I noticed the very young woman sitting on the other side of him from where I had sat, and made a note to talk to her later.

The way I saw her interacting with the severely injured soldier, I thought perhaps she was his wife, but she seemed far too young to be married and in this situation. She was thin and petite, so young! I decided that she must be a sister who was very close to him.

I later noticed her and his mother struggling a bit to pack the laptop into its box for transport to his room and walked over to help them. The young lady excitedly told me they would be getting a standard mouse to attach to the laptop because they had discovered he "recognized a mouse," and so thought it might help him reclaim some dexterity. I told her some of the features that were on the laptop, and when she asked some questions I grabbed a chair to sit next to her, then pulled the laptop back out of the box and showed her some of its features (I have the same model).

As we put it back in the box, I remembered my mental note to talk to her. I asked, "Are you his wife?" She affirmed it, and my heart fell. She couldn't have been more than 20 years old. The next words tumbled out of my mouth without any intention on my part, "How are you doing?"

"Today's a bit harder then usual," she said quietly. I must've somehow indicated my interest because she continued, "My sister called me this morning. Her husband is in the Army too, and she wanted to know where to go to pick him up. He's returning from Iraq today... I pretty much told her to go to hell."

I think I might have said, "Oh, my..."

I asked her how long they had been married, and that led to her telling their story. By the end of the conversation, our heads were together and one of my hands was in hers while my other rubbed her back. Her eyes never filled with tears, but the tears always lurked behind them. She was so small and fragile on the outside that in some ways "little ol' me" felt like I dwarfed her. But she had a core of steel.

This is their story...

They had now been married for about 18 months and had a small daughter. After less than a year of marriage, he was deployed to Iraq. He had first been injured by an IED. Two days later in the hospital, complications developed. The doctors worked over him for thirty minutes before his heart started again. It was the complications that had done all the damage that was so obvious to me: the vision problems, severe muscle spasms, inability to talk, and the apparent general brain damage. The tragic irony of that was not lost on me: to have escaped an IED with both legs damaged but still attached, only to have ended up like this...

As we talked, I noticed his clenched fist reaching towards her thigh. He was grunting quietly. She interrupted herself to say, "He wants my attention." She rubbed his fist and spoke to him, "Did you want my attention, honey?" She then turned and leaned into him, until their noses were touching. She spoke to him as any wife would, turning her face side to side as their noses continued to touch and occasionally stretching her lips to touch his. His face followed hers. I felt like I was intruding on a private moment, so I looked away and focused on my hands in my lap.

She quickly finished talking to him and turned to me, visibly energized. She said, "Did you hear him grunting? He's on fewer meds now than he was at Walter Reed and he just got his trachea tube out, so he's more and more responsive every day. Her eyes glowed." Not being a medical expert, I didn't know what to say. She said something about there being some question of what he was capable of but that she was convinced he was communicating with her.

She again referenced the phone call from her sister that morning and how insensitive it was. I just nodded my head and said, "That must have been hard." She said that her mother and sister "just didn't understand" what she was coping with. I just reflected her statements back to her, saying, "You have quite a road ahead of you." She agreed. I said, "It could be a short road or miles and miles, but you are very lucky: you have that wonderful year together to keep you warm, to give you motivation for that road. And I pray it will be miles and miles and not just a few yards of improvement before the end of the line."

She nodded strongly, smiling through the near-tears, and saying with the strongest voice I'd heard yet, "Oh, it's definitely going to be 'miles and miles' of recovery! He'll make it back. I'll bring him back" It was so clear that her attitude was that he was going to recover through the sheer strength of her will. I didn't know what to say. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn't...

It was then that I realized I'd been rubbing her back and that our hands were interwoven. I saw her husband's wedding ring adorning her thumb. I said, "You are so amazing, so strong. I know you are going make it. I can feel that spine of steel under there." She nodded and said, "Oh yes. It's there..."

I marveled at what strength was contained in such a tiny and delicate package. I looked in her eyes and saw the tears lurking behind eyes that were so full of determination and fire. Looking away in fear of becoming overwhelmed, I saw the Marine from MOPH standing outside the room and realized it had emptied around us. It was time to go.

Sometimes when I'm talking to people in pain, I find I become a bit of a counselor; I go to this clinical place where my own feelings don't even register and I become completely wrapped up in the person I'm talking to. Seeing the Marine standing outside the door watching me broke that spell, and I felt the emotion threatening to swell in me.

I said my goodbyes to her and hugged her, then made a beeline for the door. As I stepped over the threshold, the delayed emotion hit. The guy from MOPH and I made eye contact, but I looked away, blinking furiously because tears were threatening for the first time that day. I turned my back for a moment until I could appear calm again. As I had before, I thought of how many times this kind of situation has been duplicated in recent years, what war does to warfighters and those who love them. Fortunately, everybody else soon gathered, and I was distracted by the person who showed up to give us the tour of the Polytrauma Unit. The jokes and levity and flirtation returned as we all progressed down the hallway, causing as much happy disruption as we had before.

To say that that young woman and her husband "haunted" me for the following days wouldn't be an exaggeration. It's still hard for me to talk about or think about clearly, and in the future when I remember my visit, I think I will remember them first. I left my conversation with her feeling such a mixture of emotions: terrible sadness that this is one of the costs of war, amazement at her courage and composure, humility as I noticed she had not a whiff of self-pity about her, and an awareness of a level of indebtedness so impossibly high that I was ashamed of it--surely I couldn't be worthy of benefiting from such sacrifice!

This young couple is just one example of the many who are paying the price for the safety and security of the rest of us. I'm speechless and grateful and horrified and humbled, all at once. We mustn't forget them... they need our support as much as (if not moreso than) the warfighters still in the field.