This post is not one of my usual ones. First, with his written permission, I write about a man whom I will identify by name. Second, I write about him so that others may know specifically not only what has brought him so much hope, but even more what has restored his sense of mission. That which has brought him this hope, this mission, I can neither endorse nor criticize. But the very fact that it has brought him both, that it has transformed a man before my very eyes in a mere matter of weeks?
Well, I’m a shrink, after all: the chronicling of hope and mission is my specialty.
I first met Zach Holland (or, perhaps better put, “Army Strong Zach“)in June of this year. He is now twenty-eight years old, from the town of Paoli, in southern Indiana, famous throughout the state for its much-heralded ski park, Paoli Peaks. (Readers of a Western US ilk, just smile and be kind, OK? This is Indiana, after all, and it’s a big deal for us.)
Zach served in the United States Army, Infantry, 11 Bravo, stationed in Iraq from October 2006 through May 2007. He saw a lot of combat action, up close and personal. He has been awarded the Purple Heart. He received an Honorable, Medical Discharge.
He was med-evac’ed out of Iraq, where he had received multiple injuries in an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion. Eventually he underwent a left, below-the-knee amputation. There has been much pain, physical and emotional, for a long time. We met over Suboxone.
But our story begins long after that.
This past summer Zach attended a program to help with his PTSD symptoms, but while there, he developed an infection of his amputated leg. He returned home, and I saw him soon afterwards.
His leg looked terrible.
“And you should have seen it before, Doc,” he told me. “It was so much worse than this, just a couple weeks ago. They said that all I can do is keep draining it.”
I will spare the reader the details, for they are not pretty. To know that his leg had looked worse only heightened my anxiety. I was fearing—as was he—that he was heading into chronic osteomyelitis, i.e., a persistent bone infection that is essentially untreatable with antibiotics, the only treatment for which therefore is more amputation. More amputation translates into more pain, more rehabilitation, more prosthetic fittings, more sorrow before happiness (if then, even), more of the same, over and over.
I knew that. He knew that.
Then this past Thursday I looked out my door and saw him and his wife in the waiting room. He was jabbering away with our clinic secretary, looking as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
For a moment, I forgot what had happened to him.
He marched right into my office, just as big as you please. He’s a stocky guy, “hefty” in the best sense of the word, a respectable cross between “give me a hug” and “mind your own business, if you know what’s good for you.” He plopped himself down into the government-issue chair and pulled up his pant leg.
“Check it out, Doc!”
And so I did. The words then just rolled out of me, showing my age far more than do my paunch and baldness.
“Good God, the Bionic Man!”
Truth be told, if I were actually to show my age, I couldn’t be sure whether the prosthesis I saw before me was worthy more of Lee Majors or of Mark Hamill at the end of the fifth Star Wars. Either way, it was impressive.
“Isn’t it amazing, or what?” He wasn’t so much grinning as he was sporting the look of someone who’d just glided a Lexus off the lot after having negotiated the deal of the century.
If I were one of those gifted writers who can snap a photo with words, I’d wow you right about now. But as I’m not, all I can say is this: there was this prosthesis, and around it there was plastic tubing and at the end there was something like a really cool little engine, and . . .
I’m embarrassing myself. I repeat: impressive, leave it at that.
At that point I’d recalled that he’d told me something about this prosthesis the last time we’d met.
“Is this the leg you got fitted for around the last time we saw each other?” I asked.
“Yup, this is it. Remember how they just hooked me up to a computer and a matter of minutes later they came up with the model?”
I did. I mostly remembered his telling me both how impressed and how incredulous he’d been at the process, start to finish.
“Well, here it is. Absolutely perfect.” ( I about wrote “so he beamed,” but really, that’s too gushy. His tone was more along the lines of “check out the shoes, why don’t ya, real leather, can you believe it?!”)
“Where’d you get it again?”
“The Rehabilitation Institute of Indianapolis,” he continued, “Remember, I told you about that Marine who lost his leg in Nam, the guy who went on to become this big-time prosthetic limb maker? He and his son run the place. It’s crazy, man, crazy: this guy still carves out wooden legs for people by hand, and then he has these computer models of arms and legs that blow your mind. I had no clue a guy like this and technology like this existed.”
In the previous visit he had indeed spoken of the man, James Goff, told me the story of the teenage Marine who had come back from Viet Nam minus a leg, who had then vowed to become the best prosthetist ever (could a Marine be otherwise?), who continues to give depths heretofore unthinkable to the phrase walk the walk. Zach didn’t speak of him with reverence, but rather with a voice that pulsated, “he can do it, so can I.”
“What’s happened with the infection?” I asked.
Now that got the boy animated.
“That’s the craziest thing of all,” he–and now I indeed can say –beamed. “It’s actually getting better. This thing works on a vacuum system. It keeps circulation pumping in the stump, and that’s helping the healing. Jim told me that he’d had the same thing happen to him once, got a really bad infection, but when he started using this limb, his skin and infection got better, too. It’s wild, man, wild!”
I looked over at his wife, who was watching him with a smile that was actually quite nonchalant.
“It looks better?” I asked her, betraying my still too-good-to-be-true fears.
“Oh, yeah,” she replied. “You can’t even imagine. He’s been walking better. His mood’s completely changed. It was no big deal getting it measured and fitted. I mean, he’s back. And he can go snowboarding again!”
With that, Zach hyperdrove (speaking of Luke Skywalker) from “beamed” to “sky-lighted.”
“Man, you should have been there when they told me that they can fix my snowboard so that I don’t have to wear a special boot and can just attach this prosthesis directly to the board. I about started balling like a baby. I love snowboarding, Doc. And to think that I’m going to be able to go back to it, no big boot, nothing, just me and the board? You can’t even begin to know, Doc. You can’t even begin to know.”
With that last sentence, I fully agree.
“I mean, more vets have got to know about this,” he continued. “I had no idea Jim was right in my back yard. This is a game-changer, Doc, a total game-changer.”
I smiled at him. “You know, when you were out there, as you were walking in, I actually forgot about your amputation.”
Zach leaned forward and actually, as I recall, semi-winked at me. “Doc,” he practically purred, “sometimes I forget about my amputation.”
Even after having worked in psychiatry for a good thirty years now, I can find myself taken aback by the impact of life-changing events in people, whether those changes come out of psychotherapeutic conversations or out of life events that simply will not let hope swirl down the psychic garbage disposal. In a way, Zach was not hugely different from the man I’d seen in months previous: effusive is a word that I’d never have associated with him in the past, and effusive ain’t the word I’d use now.
The word I would use is enlivened.
Zach is an extrovert’s extrovert. He hated being stuck in his head. Yet his body was hurting him so much, he couldn’t escape it–and thus couldn’t escape the War Within inside him long enough to feel his life. He was an amputee with PTSD.
Now he’s a combat veteran who is trying to find a way to use his experiences to enable others to live better lives.
In the mental health field, we have phrases such as “manic defenses” and “flight into health.” While not the same, both phrases do imply that sometimes an individual’s “improvement” indeed deserves to be within quotation marks. Improvement in such circumstance is false hope, a dash into happiness in hopes that reality won’t have enough wherewithal to catch up.
It always does.
Yet from my experience as a psychotherapist, I’ll say that it’s relatively easy to spot such “defenses” and “flights,” simply because they have an anxious desperation associated with them. Words say “all is fine”; bodies say “Don’t ask.” I know those defenses when I see them–or better yet, when I feel them.
I neither see nor feel either in Zach Holland.
“I wish more vets could know about this. I really feel I owe it to my brothers and sisters to get the word out.”
We talked briefly about Facebook, about the various pages that combat veterans and their loved ones are creating and following. He admitted that he’d never considered taking advantage of them.
“But, if you’d like,” I said, “ I’d also be glad to write a blog post about you and your experiences. I can try to spread the word for you. But would you want people to know your story?”
“Absolutely.” Now if I were to say that he didn’t hesitate with that answer, that would be true. Yet that answer relayed so much more than lack of hesitation. So much more.
“You might get a lot of e-mails, you know,” I continued, “or you might get nothing at all. You never know with these things.”
“Doesn’t matter, Doc. If one other vet could feel like I’m feeling right now, that’s all I’d need.”
“How about Jim and his company? They could get a lot of interest as well–or, as well, nothing at all.”
“Let me check with him. Are you serious, though, Doc: would you do that, write about me and Jim, maybe so that other vets could feel like I’m feeling?”
I had to smile.
“Well, true, I can’t endorse Jim, or anything like that. And certainly I can say nothing about the VA or its policies. But just as certainly I can say whatever I want about the man who is in front of me–and the look in his eye and the intensity in his voice that I’ve not before seen.”
He shot that hand out to me in a way only an Army man can. I shook it.
“I’ll get back to you, Doc. Trust me. Real soon.”
It took him twenty-four hours.
Once again I walked out of my office, and there he and his wife were. That day, though, he was wearing shorts, quite proud to show me something that was, well, quite impressive.
“Look here!” he said, as he pointed down to a new prosthesis that was adorned with quite an array of Army memorabilia. “This is the final thing they were getting ready. It’s actually made out of a kind of cloth, and it’s even flexible. Feel it!”
Indeed, it was.
“I talked to Jim, Doc. He’s fine with you writing about him. And I really hope you will. I’ve been up most of the night, you know, thinking about what you said, about you wanting to help other veterans know about this. I’m trying not to be mad, Doc. It’s nobody’s fault. The people here at the VA have been great to me. But more veterans have got to know about this option they have. It’s crazy, Doc, crazy, I mean, crazy. I don’t know where I’d be now if I’d have had this earlier. But it doesn’t matter: I’m here, and I need to make sure other veterans can feel like I do.”
For a few seconds, I stared at him, quite the bemused smile plastered on my face, I suspect. I turned to his wife.
“Boy’s gonna be setting up a tent pretty soon and having himself a veteran camp meeting, huh?”
She only rolled her eyes.
“If anybody could do it,” she said, “it’d be him.”
“Hey, man,” he said, again in one of those beams-that-don’t-gush, “if that’s what it takes, I’m there. Preach on!”
Preach on, Zachary, indeed.
If you’re interested, Zach Holland can be reached at his e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s told me that whether it’s one e-mail or one thousand, he’s ready.
I repeat: I can neither endorse nor criticize the work of Mr. Goff and his staff. It’s even probably worth a standard repeat of the standard line: my writing about Zach and the Rehabilitation Institute represents solely my interests, without any endorsement or criticism by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, or any other branch of the federal government.
But this I can say: Paoli Peaks prides itself on snowboarding. And I suspect that this winter, Zachary Holland will be proud of himself on Paoli Peaks.