About 2.5 million American military personnel served in the Vietnam war, and thus far, more than 300,000 American men and women have served in Iraq. Most of these troops come home more or less intact. But for some, serving their country results in injuries leading to permanent disability – both physical and mental. How do these men and women adjust to the sudden changes that occur with traumatic injury? For some, the perseverance and hard work involved in trying new sports – or new ways of doing familiar sports – aids in the recovery process and provides a boost of optimism.
Heath Calhoun of Clarksville, Tenn. might have chosen the army as a life-long career – had he not lost both of his legs above the knee in 2003 while serving in Iraq. “An army career was definitely an option,” says Heath, who enlisted in 1999 both out of respect for the U.S. Military (his father served in Vietnam and his grandfather in World War II) and as a way to earn college money.
But a rocket-propelled grenade fired at the truck behind Heath’s Humvee flew through that truck and then into the window of his vehicle, killing a fellow soldier and seriously injuring Heath. “It blew me up against the cab of the truck,” he remembers.
Heath spent the next nine months at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., recovering from his injuries, including bilateral above the knee amputations. It was there that he was initially fit with prosthetics – but because of the trauma to his femurs, he had difficulty finding a socket (the part of a prosthetic that attaches to the remaining limb) that fit him comfortably.
Once home in Tennessee, Heath resigned himself to life in a wheelchair. But, although things had changed drastically, he hadn’t given up on leading an active life. He completed a 4,200-mile cross country bike ride (using a hand cycle) to help raise awareness and money for injured service members, and tried his hand at skiing at a Winter Sports Clinic in Aspen, Colorado. “The more contacts I made, the more opportunities I got,” he says.
One of these contacts was the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA), a national non-profit organization providing resources, peer support, outreach and education to amputees. Heath went to an ACA national conference in Minneapolis in June 2006, where he attended a prosthetic user workshop for bilateral above the knee amputees. There, for the first time, he felt hope that he would be able to walk again, using a prosthetic device with microprocessor-controlled hydraulics called the Otto Bock C-Leg. “I saw people with injuries like mine walking, carrying things, stepping up and down curbs with C-Leg technology,” says Heath.
Talking to the presenters from Hanger Prosthetics after the workshop, Heath was told that he may be able to use the C-Leg – if he could get a good socket fit. And, after consulting with a Hanger prosthetist, Heath was able to be fit with a highly contoured socket – and to use the C-Leg for daily mobility and independence. He has not used a wheelchair since.
Heath’s passion for sports has only intensified since that time. In 2010, he carried the U.S. Flag for the opening ceremonies at the Vancouver Paralympic Games, where he competed, placing 8th in the world for the Super-G and 10th in the world for the Super Combined alpine skiing event. He also runs and golfs.
Today, Heath works as a peer mentor through the ACA, helping other wounded veterans to face the struggles that he experienced following his own injuries. He considers himself fortunate to have had the support of his family during those difficult times. “I have a fantastic family,” he says. “Both the one I was blessed with at birth, and the one I married into.”
NOT READY TO JUMP
Ken Delfino of Colfax, Calif. leads an active life. Retired in 2002 from United Airlines, he’s Mayor Pro Tem in his small town, is involved with the Kiwanis Club (a service organization), and sits in the press box on Saturdays, writing articles on games played by the youth football league he helped form in 2004.
What many don’t realize when first meeting Ken is that he’s a disabled veteran. “I served with the Navy Task Force-116, River Division 533, Republic of Vietnam from October 1966 to July of 1968,” says Ken. “During that period of time, I went on 490 combat patrols, with the 490th making a major change in my life.”
On that patrol, Ken and his crew were headed on a 31-foot river boat to pick up a team of Navy SEALs and a Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (former Viet Cong used in counter-insurgency operations) for a night insertion mission. “As we got closer to the pier, a shot rang out and I was knocked down immediately,” Ken remembers. “It was a pitch black night and I thought I had bumped into something that messed up my knee. I tried to stand and figure out where to return fire when I realized I was having trouble standing. My knee felt numb so I reached down, and that’s when I felt something really sticky. Then I realized I was shot.”
The bullet hit both of Ken’s legs, shattering the tibia and fibula of the left and severing his femoral artery. After months in a Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, Ken headed home to start a new life – as an above the knee amputee with a prosthesis.
Ken’s dream of joining the San Francisco Police Department shattered, and unable to participate in the cross country running and ice hockey he had previously enjoyed, Ken began to take part in sports in a less active role, first by score keeping during friend’s softball games, then pitching for batting practice. Eventually, he formed and coached several more softball teams.
Ken was able to enjoy playing sports himself, again, too – through adaptive sports opportunities. “My company, United Airlines, was a major sponsor of the National Handicapped Ski Races every spring, and I joined the volunteers who worked the slopes every year. I was eventually talked into attempting to ski, and I took a lesson at the Winter Park Handicapped Ski School,” recalls Ken.
At the end of the two hour lesson, Ken was able to make it down the beginner’s slope without falling – and he was hooked.
With the encouragement of friends, Ken began bowling, and even learned to golf. “I didn’t golf too well when I had two legs,” he says. “But, I had a patient friend and a cousin who lived nearby who was a golf pro. With their help, I learned how to compensate and ended up with a 12 handicap.”
While Ken’s life hasn’t unfolded as he expected it to years ago, he still considers himself a lucky man. “After I realized just how close I came to going to the ‘other side,’” he says, “I have lived the philosophy of ‘I’ve been to the edge of the cliff, looked down – and realized I wasn’t ready to jump yet!’”
OVERCOMING IDENTITY CRISIS
On September 11, 2001, millions of Americans were horrified by the news of the al-Qaeda hijacking of four commercial passenger jet airliners – and the deliberate crashing (or attempt to crash) all four into buildings, including the Twin Towers in New York City. But for Nicolette Maroulis of Austin, Texas, the terrorist attack was a call to action. “On September 11, 2001, I was in shock,” remembers Nicolette. “I had no clue what to do but I felt like I needed to do something. I needed to help my country. The next working day, I enlisted in the Navy.”
A Master-at-Arms (security specialist), Nicolette eventually became a K9 (bomb dog) handler. In 2003, while performing her duties in Iraq, she was wounded, leaving her with traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nerve and joint damage, as well as hearing and lung problems.
It was only after spending several months recovering in the hospital that Nicolette learned from her physicians that she would not be able to walk again. But, she was determined to prove them wrong. “I immediately thought that my doctor was wrong,” says Nicolette. “And, that became my motivation to learn how to walk. I started this process by reading books and studying kinesiology.”
Kinesiology is the scientific study of human movement. Knowledge gained from kinesiology, which encompasses anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, bio mechanics and exercise psychology, can be applied by therapists to help a person’s body heal itself after a traumatic injury. And, learning about kinesiology was Nicolette’s way of taking personal responsibility for her rehabilitation. “I put together a game plan so once I was able to start physical therapy, I could take an active role in my recovery,” she says.
With the support of her boyfriend (who is now her husband), Nicolette pushed herself both mentally and physically through multiple surgeries and intensive physical therapy, eventually learning how to walk.
Once out of the hospital, she became involved in Disabled Sports USA (DSUSA), a nonprofit organization established in 1967 by disabled Vietnam Veterans to serve the war injured. Community based chapters of DSUSA offer a variety of recreational programs for those with disabilities, such as snow skiing, water sports, golf and cycling. It was through a DSUSA event that Nicolette learned about hand-cycling. “I was on a trip with DSUSA when one of the locals suggested we go on a ride,” she says. “I tried an upright bike and couldn’t make it to the second pedal without falling. I thought I would have to sit it out when someone brought over an extra hand-cycle. I really enjoyed it. I rode it around and realized I could ride with able bodied people.”
Excited by her accomplishment, Nicolette looked for other oppor-tunities to become involved in sports. Last spring, she joined other American heroes for a 63 day, 4,000 mile cycling journey from San Francisco to Virginia Beach in the Sea to Shining Sea event for World T.E.A.M. Sports. And, she didn’t stop there. Recently accepted on the U.S. Paralympic Rowing Team, she hopes to compete in 2011. And, just last month, she climbed Mount Lobuche in the Himalayan mountain range in Nepal on an October expedition with Soldiers to the Summit.
What does participation in sports do for Nicolette? “Sports are a great way to rehabilitate,” she claims. “They also help me with my identity. You go through an identity crisis when you are injured. I was a bomb handler, then I was injured. I have struggled with being an ‘injured veteran.’ I am proud of my service. I would do it all again. But, my injuries are part of me, they are not who I am. So the more I ride my hand-cycle, climb mountains, ski, row, surf – the more I dilute the injury and become a woman with many identifying markers. That is something I love.” MS&F
HELP FOR PTSD
Post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety condition that can develop after exposure to traumatic events that threaten or cause physical harm. Symptoms can include anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, anger and hyper vigilance. Many veterans with PTSD end up self-medicating with alcohol and/or drugs.
PTSD began to be recognized in soldiers of the Vietnam War. It is estimated that as many as one out of five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars suffers from PTSD and/or depression.
Treatments for PTSD include group and individual psychotherapy, medications for anxiety and depression, massage, acupuncture, music and art therapy, equine therapy and audio therapy.
Learn more about PTSD here.
NEW HOPE FOR DRUG ADDICTED VETS
Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem in the United States today. And, injured veterans taking prescription pain medications for extended periods of time are at high risk for drug addiction, says Gregory Smith, MD, QME, a Los Angeles-based drug addiction expert. “Most people addicted to prescription drugs are not recreational drug users,” he adds. “Typically they are prescribed pain medication after sustaining an injury, or having an accident.”
Smith predicts a “tidal wave” of military drug addiction following the U.S. involvement in Iraq. But, there is good news in the treatment of chronic pain, too, he says. “DNA testing can help to determine if someone has a genetic predisposition for abusing drugs.”
Smith uses the findings of such testing to help develop individualized approaches to pain management, and works to treat all of the aspects of the chronic pain experience, including nutritional, emotional, social and physical problems. His trademarked “N.E.S.P” treatment may include nutritional counseling and supplements, yoga-based physical therapy, hypno-therapy, and assignments for doing volunteer work, as well as more traditional methods of pain control. This is an integrative approach, says Smith. One that addresses the entire being. “Conventional doctors are taught just to treat physical symptoms,” he explains. There needs to be a full body integrative approach, customized to focus on what the person is lacking. No one thing works for everyone.” MS&F
*Photo courtesy of Hanger Prosthetics