The 5th Floor

         After my condition stabilized, I was transferred to the fifth floor of the hospital, onto Ward 5 East.  The fifth floor was where all of us wounded guys went to heal, and would be my home for the next month.  Remembering it now, it seems like it lasted closer to four months.  Unfortunately, I had separated from Daniel at this point.  He was still stuck down in the ICU, so I had moved ahead in the race.  In order to keep his spirits high, Bill recorded a message from me on his iPhone, and took it down to the ICU for Daniel.  My message was simple: our first step is to get working out again to regain our strength, and our second step is to have a great time on the fifth floor, and finally, I am thinking about you, and we are doing this together.

                For me and Daniel, working out was an essential part of life.  Doing high intensity, circuit style workouts were how we first bonded and became friends way back on our first deployment to Iraq in 2008.  The workouts we chose to do came from the website GymJones.com, a site that would significantly change the person I was.  But more about them later.  Since we were working out together all the time with these Gym Jones workouts, we started calling ourselves Jones Gym, and even started to get a following in our platoon.  We would take our group down to the gym, give them the workout to do, and if anybody quit, they were officially noted in the log with a DNF.  We never quit back then, and we would be damned if we were going to quit now.  It was just a matter of time until Jones Gym would be back at it once again.

                My new room was comfy and spacious.  The banks of monitors that used to keep track of my heart and breathing were replaced with a lonely IV pole, so there was room for chairs, and even a TV in the corner.  I had a table that could extend from my bedside out over my bed that I would set my meals on when I ate whose height I could adjust for perfect dining.  My bed was situated in the back corner right next to a window.  The windowsill was occupied by aromatic flowers of all colors and varieties.  On the wall across from my bed I had hanging up a Marine Corps flag which my visitors signed after their visits.  On the wall at the foot of my bed, I had a dry erase calendar to keep track of my daily events, and a pinboard covered in cards.  The number of wires and tubes had been reduced, but going anywhere required a lot of device transfer.

                I quickly developed a routine after being moved to the fifth floor.  I was still having some trouble sleeping in the early days, so I would be up early in the morning.  Partly this was also due to the doctors doing their rounds starting at four o’clock in the morning.  For some reason they never came in all at once, but would check on me one after the other, right when I had fallen back asleep.  On occasion, I would fall back asleep while they looked at my stumps, and wouldn’t remember them even coming in.  This certainly wasn’t the Ritz, but hospitals are there for people to get better, not to be pampered. 

                By this time I was beginning to become accustomed to the drugs in my veins.  There were still times of incoherence, however, such as when I would call my nurse Caitlin in to tell her that my bed was uneven.  When she and the corpsmen flattened it, I would insist that it was still angled until I finally decided to give up.  My vision was still a little blurry when I looked at a computer screen as well, but even that went away in a short time.  I was able to log in to Facebook by now, and was greeted with dozens of get well messages from more friends than I knew I had.

                After waking up, I would generally read until it was breakfast time.  Like most hospital food, breakfast left much to be desired.  In fact, all of the meals left much to be desired.  There was one saving grace, however.  The protein milkshakes.  I have no idea what was in those things, but they were exquisite.  I would get two vanilla flavored milkshakes with every meal.  Despite the food, breakfast was my favorite part of the day, as it has been my entire life.  Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, when there were times that all there was to eat was apple sauce, I never missed breakfast.  Along with breakfast containing the best tasting foods out of all three meals, I think it is important to start your day off well with a good meal.  Not only does it give your body calories so that you can immediately get to work, it puts me in a good mood to start from, and that sets up the rest of the day.  But the best part about breakfast in the hospital was that every day I watched Seinfeld.  On her first visit to me, my grandmother brought me the complete series on DVD.  To this day, that remains one of the best gifts I have ever received.  Every day when my breakfast came I asked the corpsman to put a new DVD in my TV, and I would watch the whole thing.  Talk about starting my day off right.  There is no better way to start than with milkshakes and Seinfeld induced laughter.

                Next, my inpatient physical and occupational therapists, Shannon, Trista, and MJ, would come in for my daily workout.  The first couple of times the workout was merely lifting my stumps up and down, and side to side.  Not difficult in the least for me to do now, but back then doing those 20 reps was practically a marathon.  As I got stronger, they would take me down to the clinic on the fifth floor, and I would do a variety of exercises such as pushups, lifting a dumbbell, and balancing on a BOSU ball.  It was during one of these BOSU ball balancing challenges that disaster struck.  Always one to push my limits, I was balancing on the BOSU upside down.  MJ, of course, was concerned that I would fall over, so she was right behind me just in case.  Her dedication ended up backfiring for her as I lost my balance, fell backwards, and elbowed her in the mouth.  Luckily for me, she was forgiving.  I always had fun going down to the inpatient therapy clinic.  It gave me my first opportunities to figure out what my body could still do, and discover new ways to do the things that it no longer could.  I am proud to say that at one time I was the pull up champion of the inpatient clinic, with 18 pullups.  I have since been beaten by a Navy SEAL.  The workouts were made especially enjoyable by Trista and MJ playing Rocky songs while I did my exercises, which gave me the opportunity to tell them about the most underrated Rocky song in existence, Burning Heart.  There is a line in the song that I felt was especially appropriate for my situation, “though his body says stop, his spirit cries never!”  Even when my therapists couldn’t make it to my room on any particular day, I took matters into my own hands, and did pullups on the trapeze bar attached to my hospital bed.  The way I figured it, I had a long way to go to get my strength back, so I may as well get started.  And the best way to get stronger, whether in mind or in body, is to be consistent in your work.  Similar to my wounds that were slowly healing each day, I would only get slightly stronger every day.  I equate it to Michelangelo chiseling a statue.  Each time he tapped the stone, he would take out a tiny piece of rock.  But after 10,000 taps, he had David.  Now, while I never expected to be so perfect, I knew that each pullup I did on that trapeze bar was just one more chisel tap out of the 10,000 I would need.

                It is easy to be motivated to succeed in the beginning of an endeavor, and when you are close to the end.  The most difficult part, and the part where people quit, is when they are in the thick of it, and it is unclear whether they have the strength and the stamina to make it the rest of the way.  While I never actually doubted my ability to walk again during my recovery, I am certainly subject to the inner monologue rationalizing why it is okay to quit, or to not push myself to the goal that I have written down on paper.  One way that I have recognized to aid in shutting that monologue the fuck up is celebrating milestones.  The hardest part of working towards a goal is when we are either making slow progress, or negative progress, and having the patience and the confidence to know that the improvements we make over the long periods as opposed to the short periods are what matter.  Milestones are what remind us that we are making progress, even if it isn’t apparent every day.  In rowing, I have heard of people that count strokes until the finish line, using sets of ten.  Personally, I liked to count 250’s, four making up a race.  When I ran the Nation’s Triathlon, I picked points ahead of me to make it to, and when I got there, I would pick a new point.  Anything we can use to keep our mind from succumbing to the monologue will work.  Not only in short term goals, but also in long term goals, like graduating from college, or learning to use prosthetics.

                Luckily for me, my milestones started coming quickly.  My first big milestone was making it out of the ICU and up to the fifth floor.  I was still bed ridden, however, and beyond that, I couldn’t even roll over.  In order to change my sheets, and change the gauze on my butt, I had to get help from the nurse or a family member to roll to either side while the nurse did her work.  As I healed, it became easier and easier for me to roll, until eventually I could do it entirely on my own.  Chalk one up.

                Next, it was time to get the hell out of that bed.  After a few days of being on the fifth floor, my wheelchair arrived.  Although I grew to look at the wheelchair as something to be avoided as I got better at walking, the wheelchair was my saving grace in the early stages of my recovery.  Getting into the wheelchair in the beginning was a harrowing experience.  In order to get me from the bed to the chair, I needed to be slid on a square piece of fabric to the edge of the bed, then turned, then gently slid the rest of the way into the chair.  All of this while keeping the four tubes connected to my body untangled.  I kept a keen eye on the catheter.  The sliding portion was never fun and always uncomfortable, but I needed to be mobile, so it was worth the discomfort.  Some trips were easier than others.  On my first trip to the outside world, I had four of my Marine buddies in the room.  When I called my nurse, Caitlin, in to get me in my chair, instead of her doing it, they all insisted that they could help.  I must not have emphasized that the motion required was a slide enough during my instructions, because these four strong men lifted me two feet in the air and landed me smack dab in the wheelchair.  I am sure I took at least a few months off Caitlin’s life that day as she saw her fragile patient go flying through the air.  As much as it started with a bang, the mission to get me outside was actually top secret.  None of us knew whether or not I was even allowed to go outside, and we figured instead of asking, we would just go.  The mission went off without a hitch, as this skinny and pale tube cushion finally got to soak in the warm August sun for a few minutes.  That air remains some of the freshest seeming air that I have ever breathed.  Milestone total: three. 

                My wheelchair rolls were my favorite part of the day.  We would get me into the chair, attach my woundvac machines(devices designed to suck out the gooey healing muck from a wound) underneath, get all of the tubes situated so that they wouldn’t get yanked or tangled(watch the catheter), maneuver me out the door, and get rolling around the ward.  Because I had an IV pole attached to me at all times, I always had a person with me to push the pole along as I rolled.  I would slowly do laps of the ward, saying hi to the nurses as I passed their station, reading the names of my fellow amputated compatriots on the ward, and just enjoying being “out.”  After my laps were completed came my favorite part of the roll: visiting Daniel.  Daniel’s room was tricky to get into.  Some sinister room designer decided to equip it with two doors, one past the other.  Eventually, after some careful maneuvering of tubes, IV pole, and wheelchair, I would make it into his room.  The conversations weren’t much back in those days, as neither one of us could hear all that well, and he was in a lot of pain, but the visits made a big difference for both of us.  It is one thing to have to walk through the bowels of Hell on your own.  But if you have a friend along with you, well then the Devil better watch out, because Jones Gym is coming for him.  These visits gave me something that I couldn’t have anywhere else but Daniels’ room: a link to what I had before my injury.  After the explosion, my life and everything I had were taken away in an instant.  All that I had left were people.  Legs: gone.  Job: gone.  Future plans: changed to who knows what?  But being able to go and hang out with my best friend and shoot the shit for a while, unconcerned with any of that: still had it.  I don’t know how well I would have done if I didn’t get to do that.

                Even though I am sure nobody minded helping me, it was getting to be time for me to do things on my own.  As my wrecked body healed, tubes and pain started disappearing.  I started to become more mobile.  I could roll over, sit up, and move across the bed on my own.  One day when my doctors came in I broached the subject of getting rid of that god damn catheter that haunted me.  So the next day after I woke from surgery, it was gone.  And not only that, but one of my woundvac machines was gone as well.  Having rediscovered my ability to pee on my own, I was pounding water and filling urinal bottles left and right.  Along with independent urination, I finally was able to get into my wheelchair by myself.  I now had the ability to go where I wanted when I wanted.  I didn’t have to wait for a nurse and corpsman to slide me around.  There are few things in this world as important to me as independence.  Trying to get that back over the course of the following year and a half was my top priority, and would at times cause me great distress.  And this was another small step in the right direction.  Another breadcrumb on my way back.  There was no stopping me now. 

Throughout my stay at NNMC, the stream of visitors never slowed.  Just about everybody I had ever spent significant time with came to see me and show their support.  I had a Marine Corps flag in my room, and I had people sign it on their way out.  It now hangs in a frame on my wall, and is covered with signatures.  I have some famous signatures on there; Gary Sinise, President Obama, Oliver North, the Commandant.  But my favorite ones to read are the ones from my friends and the people that worked with me during my recovery.  It is a constant reminder to me that despite being the one that was wounded, I wasn’t the only one affected, and I wasn’t alone even one time.  The adoration and support that I received from my family and friends became the legs that I could stand on.  I never stopped receiving gifts of cards, cookies, and cases of Mountain Dew.  Even though I had been wasting away, and I love cookies, I couldn’t eat all of them on my own.  Luckily I had plenty of visitors to help me.  On top of the family and friends visits, I received visits from complete strangers wanting to come and show their support.  I was sent an essay once that was about how Americans don’t support their troops, and asked my opinion on it.  As I read, these strangers that visited me were the first thing that came to mind.  To this day I am reminded that we in the military are appreciated as much as anything else in this country.  It is rare that I spend a day in public that I don’t get thanked, given money, or have a meal bought for me.  To feel appreciated by strangers when I was in the hospital after my injury truly brightened my day, and helped to reinforce that what I and other Marines had done was not in vain, and would be remembered.

                Despite it being the least mobile and independent part of my life since being a baby, at times I kind of miss that first month in the hospital.  It was a simple time.  All I needed to do was eat, heal, visit Daniel, and watch Seinfeld.  Finally there was a time when I wasn’t putting constant pressure on myself to accomplish anything, or to make sure I improve on something every day.  I had a reason to take a break.  I didn’t have to concern myself with any of that real world stuff, in fact I didn’t even have a phone to be tied to.  And most of all, I truly miss being able to have two milkshakes with every meal.

                Like any break, however, this one didn’t last forever.  After my skin graft was deemed healthy, it was time for me to move on.  They removed the last of the tubes.  No longer did I have any woundvac machines, and I didn’t even have a constant IV.  My pain button, as much as it scared me, was taken away, and surprisingly, there wasn’t any pain.  My mom and I packed up my room, and I said a few goodbyes to the nurses and the physical therapy staff.  When the medical transport people showed up, I only had one more goodbye to say.  Of course, it wasn’t really a goodbye as much as a “see you later.”  So, I told them I’d need just a minute and wheeled over to Daniel’s room.  Daniel, however, was in the middle a very delicate procedure known as pooping.  The transport people urged me to go with them, as they were on a schedule.  But I told them that I wasn’t leaving until I said bye to Daniel, and I didn’t care how long I had to wait.  They must have gotten the vibe from me that I wasn’t going to budge, because they backed off.  When I finally got in, there wasn’t much to say, as usual.  I was going to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  He was going to the Richmond, Virginia Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.  So, I said I’d talk to him later, wheeled out, and hopped onto the stretcher that the transport folks brought with them.  My break was over.  I knew that Walter Reed was where I was going to get my prosthetic legs.  I knew it was going to be hard work.  I didn’t know how long it was going to take, but I welcomed it.  I was ready.