David parked his walker and positioned himself between the rails, then tried to take a few steps, mainly supporting himself with his arms. It was hard work to maneuver his bad leg. He could hardly make it down the lane. About halfway through, he had to stop, taking deep breaths to try to ease the pain.
“Okay, that’s enough. George will help you now.”
David was about to insist he could reach the end but found he didn’t have the energy to argue. Feeling beat down and embarrassed, he allowed George to help him off the rails and get back in the walker.
“You can rest up on the table,” Gena told him. “Do you want some help?”
“I can do it, thanks,” David insisted. He slowly made his way back to the table, exhausted and hanging on to his walker like a life preserver. He didn’t want to admit that he needed help but realized if someone didn’t give him a hand, he might end up on the floor. For real this time.
As he reached the table he looked toward George, but Gena stepped up and before he knew what was happening, she wrapped his arm around her shoulder, put her arm around his waist, and easily lifted him up so he was sitting on the table.
Man, she was strong. He had about an entire foot of height and sixty or even seventy pounds on her. How had she done it? It was like a magic trick.
When he looked down at her, the corner of her mouth had edged up just a tiny bit. It wasn’t what you would call a smile, not even close. But David could tell his shock had amused her.
“What’s the matter, David? Do you feel all right?”
He nodded and quickly looked down at his sneakers, realizing he had been staring at her. “I’m fine.”
“Would you like some water?”
“Yes, I would. Thanks.”
She took a frosty water bottle off the side table and handed it to him, then continued to write on his chart as he drank.
He had to say one thing for this routine. He wasn’t staring out a window, lost in a fog. He felt more alert and focused than he had for weeks.
When Gena finally looked back at him, he expected her to give him an assessment of his condition. Instead, she started asking more questions—questions about his injuries, his operations, and how long it took to recover from each.
“Let’s see, I’ll start from the top and go down,” he began. He had been asked these same questions so many times, he felt like a recorded announcement. Was she too lazy to just read the chart? “I had a fractured skull and a concussion, dislocated shoulder, broken collarbone and arm ...”
“Right arm?” she said, her eyes scanning his file.
“That’s correct. It was fractured. I needed a plate in there. A few broken ribs, punctured lung. All that wasn’t so bad. The legs, that was the worst of it,” he said. “Both of them got smashed when the Humvee turned over.”
“You were fired on?” she asked.
“Yeah. I was in the motor pool, a mechanic. My team was sent to service a vehicle not too far from the base.” But any time you left base, there was danger of an attack, even on well-patrolled roads. “The Humvee we were traveling in was fired on.” David paused. It was still hard to recount the story without getting emotional. “We were hit, and it turned over.”
Gena cast him a rare, sympathetic look. “You were lucky you got out alive.”
“Yes, I was. My sergeant pulled me out before the whole thing exploded. He was a real hero.”
I didn’t do very much. Just managed to come back in one piece. Sort of.
It made him uncomfortable when people praised his service, as if he had been incredibly brave over there. He knew what real courage was. What real sacrifice was. He didn’t feel he deserved to be called anything like that, not next to a man like Nolan.
Gena held him in her dark, steady gaze. “So you sustained substantial injury to both legs. And on the right, the hip as well.”
“Correct. The right leg seems the worst of it. Even though the left one’s still pretty messed up.”
Not a very precise medical description, he knew, but it about covered his condition.
“How did you feel after the hip replacement surgery?”
“The first or the second?” he asked. “They screwed something up the first time. The wrong size ball joint or something. They had to take a do-over.”
“Right. A second surgery. How did you feel after that one?”
“I was in pain. I still am,” he added. “And no feeling at all in my foot. But you know that already, right?”
She ignored his question. “I see you’re taking medication. What about your diet? Are you eating well—a balanced diet, nutritious foods?”
“If it was up to my father and stepmother, I’d be eating ten meals a day. I’d be big as a barn.” He looked down at his body, which was not only thinner but much less muscular than it had been months ago when he shipped out of Fort Bragg.
Gena’s mouth twisted in a half smile. “What’s your social life been like since you’ve come back?”
“Social life? What’s that?”
Her eyebrows went up a notch. “Do you see any friends? Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No . . . nothing going on like that right now. I lost touch with the guys I went to high school with. Most of them have moved away. I wouldn’t have much to say to them now anyway.”
He thought of Christine. She was a friend. But seeing her that one time wasn’t what Gena meant, and David was sure he wouldn’t be seeing Christine again anytime soon.
“Friends from the army?”
“Once in a while there’s an e-mail. My life is pretty dull. I don’t have too much to say. Most of the guys I was tight with in my squad are still over there . . . except our sergeant. He died that night we got hit.”
“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “I’m sorry you lost your friend.”
David shrugged. He didn’t know what else to tell her. He hadn’t known those guys too long. But they had grown tight, especially the nine guys in his squad. They had depended on each other for their very survival. Training together, sleeping together, eating together, going through life-threatening experiences together—he felt a bond with them that he had never felt with anyone before. And never expected to feel again.
It had been pure, blind chance he had not died when the Humvee was hit and later, when it exploded. He knew that there was nothing he could have done to save Sergeant Nolan. To change the flip of that coin. But he still felt a nagging guilt, as if he had somehow betrayed the man by surviving him.
“Any trouble sleeping?” Gena asked.
He paused, wondering how truthful he should be. “Not great,” he admitted.
“Because of the pain?”
“Any other reasons?” she persisted. “Headaches? Nightmares?”
“Yeah, sometimes. But that’s pretty common, I hear, for someone like me.” He looked up at her. “Are you a shrink, too? It was my understanding that you just covered the physical repairs. I didn’t know you were qualified to get into my head.”
His question held a challenging edge. If he wanted to see a psychiatrist, he would make an appointment with one. Why did she need to ask him all these questions?
She tucked the folder under her arm and met his gaze. “Everything’s connected, David. Your emotional state, your attitude, your body. Your physical recovery is greatly impacted by your psychological state. And so is any work that we do together.”
“Well, maybe, but it seems to me if I go to a gym and press weights for a month, I still get a muscle in my arm. Whether I’m smiling or crying.”
She tilted her head. “Maybe. But this is different. This isn’t just body-building. It’s healing, inside and out. Have you met with a counselor at any point to talk about your night traumas or your feelings about the friends you’ve lost?”
David sighed and sat back. She wouldn’t give up, would she? “Yeah, once or twice. I didn’t get much out of it. I’m okay,” he insisted. “I mean, considering what I went through. Hey, anybody would feel down, a little messed up. I need to start walking again. That’s what I need. Talking isn’t going to help me. Walking is.”
He knew he sounded angry but he couldn’t stop himself. She had pushed his buttons with all her questions.
“If that’s how you feel, counseling probably won’t help you,” she agreed. “But you ought to think about it, reconsider.”
“Okay, I will,” he said just to close the subject. “What do you think about my condition? About my physical therapy? Any ideas about that?”
She took a moment before answering. “If all you want to talk about is your body, I’d say you ought to consider yourself lucky. You didn’t come out of it badly at all.”
David knew that was true. All he had to do was look around at his fellow patients. Take the guy on the next table, who was missing an arm, for instance. What would it be like coming home in that condition?
He took another swallow of water, feeling like a self-absorbed slug. “Listen,” he said, “I know everybody’s got a story. I know I’m damn lucky to have come back in one piece. You don’t have to tell me that. But it still stinks to be trapped inside this walker, dragging a half-dead foot.”
She nodded, the same, serious expression that didn’t reveal one hint of emotion or what was really going on in her head.
She thought he was a spoiled, whining baby, David decided. Well, so what if she did?
“You want to get rid of the walker. Is that your priority?”
“My priority? Actually, no. My priority would be to have my legs working again. To be able to apply for a job as a cop or a firefighter, which was my plan once my enlistment was up. Until I got hit.”
David quickly realized that somewhere during his explanation his voice had grown progressively louder. He was practically shouting at her. As if this physical therapist had anything to do with his condition, any say in what would be.
Well, she had asked him the question hadn’t she?
He stared at her, feeling awkward. He should apologize, he knew. But Gena seemed unfazed, unmoved by the angry, crazy, disabled soldier yelling at her. She probably got that all the time.
“I read the medical report,” she answered evenly. “There’s still some chance you could regain feeling in your foot. But we have to assume that you won’t and build up other muscles so that you can manage with a cane and the brace.” She waited a moment for him to reply. When he didn’t she continued. “It appears, at this time anyway, that any job with demanding physical requirements is off the table. I’m sorry.”
David was not shocked by this assessment. He had heard this prognosis before from his doctors. But it was still discouraging to be reminded of his losses.
Maybe he had come here today expecting this new therapist to know something that the doctors didn’t. To look him over, broken parts and all, and say, “Hey, no problem. I can fix that. You’re going to be one hundred percent in no time, pal.”
Maybe that’s what he had secretly been hoping for. Not this flat-out, in your face, no icing on the cake honesty.
He took a long breath and shook his head. “Great. Just what I wanted to hear. I’m going to have a limp and need a cane the rest of my life? Is that what you’re saying?”
She stared back at him, meeting his angry glare with a cool gaze. “That might be the final outcome. A lot depends on you, David, on your attitude and goals. What you’re willing to put into your therapy.” She paused, and closed his folder, neatly lining up the pages inside. “Think about it. Get back to me.”
“What do you mean, get back to you? I thought I was assigned to you. I don’t know much about VA hospitals, but I know they’re part of the army. Which is not big on choices, last I heard.”
“There are assignments and rules I have to follow,” Gena conceded. “But if I meet a patient whom I think isn’t going to be a good fit, there are ways to pass that case to another therapist.”
So, he was reduced now to just a “case”? What was going on here? He had expected some gentle handling and sympathy—lots of sympathy, actually.
“So you don’t want to work with me, is that it?” he asked.
“I didn’t say that. I’m being honest with you, giving you the complete picture. I give my all, David. I don’t like to work with patients who aren’t making the same effort.” When he didn’t answer, she added, “Would you rather I didn’t treat you like an adult?”
“Of course not,” he snapped. Though secretly he wasn’t sure. His father and Julie had been handling him as if he were made of glass. Signing on with this woman was like re-upping.
“Think about it. This is a partnership. I don’t fix you like a mechanic repairs a car,” she clarified. “Your next appointment is Wednesday. If you want to be assigned to a different therapist, you can ask at that time. No problem.”
Before David could reply, Gena checked her watch. “I’m due at my next appointment. I’ll see you on Wednesday.”
“Right. When pigs fly, ma’am,” he wanted to say. But he decided it was best not to say anything.
Flipping the curtain aside, she was gone. George soon appeared as David sat struggling to get off the table. His arms felt weak and rubbery from all the exercise, and he rested for a moment, before trying to lift himself up and off.
Without saying a word, George gripped him around the waist and helped him down, then held the walker in place.
“Thanks,” David mumbled.
“Don’t mention it. That’s what I’m here for.”
“Really? You’d never know it from talking to your boss.”
George laughed. “Gena? She’s got her own style, that’s for sure. But she gets results. Nobody will argue with that.”
George delivered him to the waiting room door where David immediately spotted Jack, who sat reading a newspaper.
“So, how did it go?” Jack asked, stepping to David’s side.
“My new physical therapist reminds me of my drill sergeant in basic training,” David reported. “Except even wor—” He broke off as he noticed Gena on the other side of the waiting area, speaking to a patient in a wheelchair. “That’s her.”