A cancer survivor’s perspective on wounded warriors

I was at the Walter Reed National Medical Center where I get medical care as a retired naval officer, and decided to use my time between medical appointments to get a much needed haircut. I walked into the barber shop, took a number, and sat down to await my turn. The three chairs were occupied by young men getting haircuts. Their chests and lower bodies were covered with long blue aprons to protect them from the cut hair.

I quickly realized that the leg of one man was actually a metal prosthesis.When the barber finished cutting his hair and removed the apron it became evident that that the man was also missing both arms. He struggled to get from the chair into a wheel chair being pushed by a young woman who appeared to be his relative. He then asked her to hand him his wallet and labored to find the correct banknotes using his prosthetic devices. Finally, he gave up and asked his companion to hand the correct sum of money to the barber. He appeared well adjusted to his limitations and determined to do everything as much as possible. After he left, I sat in the vacant chair and the barber began cutting my hair.

As he was about to finish, a new customer rolled into the shop on a wheelchair accompanied by a young female volunteer. He was in his early twenties and was missing all four limbs – both arms and both legs. His only useable limb appeared to be the stump of his left arm which he used to control the movement of his wheelchair. He was all smiles as he chatted with his female companion and the other waiting customers. He even refused their offers to let him go ahead of them.

I was astounded when I saw these young men and felt so sorry for their situations. I kept wondering about the kind of life waiting for them. How could they take care of themselves and function in society without their limbs? Would they be able to have families of their own? How could they overcome their handicaps?

For the past three years, I have had to deal with my own disability, which included the loss of my vocal cords after a total laryngectomy due to throat cancer. Enduring radiation, repeat surgeries, and life as a laryngectomee was, and remains, difficult and challenging. Admittedly, it is sometimes rather easy to feel sorry for myself and long for the days when I was a “whole” person. Yet, seeing these young men who had been wounded in the war in Afghanistan gave me an entirely new perspective on myself.

My suffering clearly paled in comparison to theirs. I could barely imagine the medical and psychological challenges they had already dealt with and those that still lay ahead. As a physician who had also seen the effects of combat on young soldiers, I knew that the rest of their lives would be a continuous struggle. Yet they projected perseverance, optimism, and love of life.

They were an inspiration to me and everyone around them.

Itzhak Brook is a professor of pediatrics, Georgetown University School of Medicine and author of the book My Voice: A Physician’s Personal Experience With Throat Cancer and In the Sands of Sinai: A Physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War. He blogs at My Voice.

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