Monday, November 16, 2009

New Beginnings with a Purple Heart

I am writing this from a very old American Airlines airplane, on my way to NYC. Sorry I've been absent. I was traveling all last week and now on the road again this week. I'm so happy to be writing this blog while snuggled up in my purple wrap, sitting next to this nice Hassidic Jewish man, fighting for elbow room, as we both attempt to work on our computers in our obscenely small seats in coach.

Many of you have asked me what's going on with adoption papers, "Have you filled them out yet?" We are getting there. Because Jason is so much more efficient than I at just about everything, he took over by having the forms put into a digital format. And he began the process of filling them out on his last business trip. Which is a great thing, considering that Wiley, our husky chewed up half the stack that was sitting on the dining room table. I guess he's opposed to being pushed aside by a baby. I could spend the next 500 words diving into the psychological reasons for resisting the task of filling out adoption papers in the pursuit of parenthood, but I have something else to say. Something more important to me on this day than that. I will save the bizarre place I find myself in the adoption conundrum for another post.

As you may recall, I went to Texas to sit on a panel at the Texas Women's Conference in Houston. There were about 5,000 women in attendance and The first lady of Texas, Katy Perry, was the host very similar to Maria Shriver's California Conference...only different. Nothing like a convention center full of Texas pride and energy to remind me that everything is bigger, louder and brighter in Texas.

The panel I sat on was about Second Chances and New Beginnings. The audience was large, about 800 women, and they seemed engaged. I found myself speaking from personal experiences about what it means to start over, to have a second chance, to create a new beginning. We all have to encounter this moment in life and face it head on, whether it be out of design, necessity or survival. Most of the women there were interested in career second chances....."What if I want to leave my desk job, what would you suggest I do? What if I'm afraid to start my own business, what advice can you give? How did you know you were on the right path?" were all questions they asked. I loved speaking on this subject matter, and I felt like what I had to say resonated with the women in the least I hope it did.

And then, later that evening, I met a U.S. Marine and everything I believed about new beginnings and second chances changed. My soulful optimism was sliced in half by this young man and I am grateful for it. I have been walking around, somewhat blind, and he switched on the light for me even though what I see is enough to make me want to turn it off again.

Corporal Chad Owens is a 27 year old Marine who fought in the Iraq war. His lifelong dream was have a career in the military and to fight for his country. When he was 19 years old, he saw the twin towers come down and he knew his dream HAD to become a reality. So he enlisted.

On his first tour of duty, he fell asleep on an airplane and woke up in Baghdad amidst the toppling of Saddam's regime. His battalion was the first to arrive in Baghdad Square when the streets were filled with rioters and he saw the infamous statue topple to the ground. At 22 years old he was storming Saddam's castle, bursting through the opulent marble filled rooms, gun drawn prepared to fire against the enemy. He told me that the bizarrely decorated kid's rooms had Britney Spears, J-Lo and Harry Potter posters on the walls....A detail I couldn't quite comprehend considering the vehement hatred by Islamic extremists of our gluttonous celebrity filled culture who practice witchcraft, love yo-yo dieting and regular trips to the tanning salon. He also remembers the cavernous marble rooms filled with nothing but designer suits, or rooms designated solely for perfume and cologne bottles, and a smell that wafted throughout the castle that was part perfume and part cooking spice. An odor that indicated life was just lived in this opulent place.

Chad is a friend, of one of my closest friend's Resa Wing. She and her husband, John Wing an Army fighter pilot who served in Vietnam, founded Operation Grateful Nation, a nonprofit dedicated to matching up disabled veterans with mentors who can help them pursue careers, complete their education or get the services they need to become successful. Through their wonderful work they met Chad and they have become family.

We met up with Chad on November 12th, the day after Veteran's day. He had just come from the VA hospital in Houston trying to track down a doctor who could help him with his PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) symptoms. When I first laid eyes on this good looking guy I was struck by his bright blue eyes and his big smile. He walked up to our table at the outdoor Cantina where Resa and I were sipping Coronas. And then I noticed his bionic legs. He lost both of them when a road side bomb exploded turning his Humvee into a bowl of spaghetti on his second tour of duty. He remembers nothing, thank God, until he woke up in a German hospital a month later with collapsed lungs, a broken jaw, 200 pieces of Schrapnel, some of which you can still see on his face, and a piece of the carberator imbedded in his neck. He flat lined twice on the operating table, and his mother was called to Germany for his last rites. But Chad was meant to be here. His second chance and third chance given to him in that hospital five years ago.

The mariachi music was playing as I squeezed my lime into my beer and listened to Chad talk about the VA. Here's where you might get really pissed off, at least I hope you do. He not only lost his legs, but it took him four years to get a second prosthetic. It was his second leg that kept getting infected and rather than believe his own diagnosis of the infection, the doctors kept cutting more of his bone to fix what they thought was broken. What's left is a small stump barely long enough for the prosthetic to grab hold of. 40 surgeries and countless doctors later, you might think his suffering would be over, but in many ways it's just beginning. While most of the physical ailments have FINALLY been treated, the mental and emotional have not.

His cry for help has not been heard. When he seeks psychiatric care for his PTSD.... symptoms include migraines, insomnia, no appetite, chronic fatigue, horrible nightmares, inability to finish a thought, highly emotional and volatile, hopelessness, the VA has no protocol for him. He's been shuffled around from doctor to doctor and each time he thinks he's found the therapist for him they assign him to someone else. His latest therapist was a pregnant civilian who, by all accounts, had never been in combat. The day I met him, he wept because he feels that he's been set aside by the very country that he fought for. He talked about going into the VA and stoically asking to see the doctor, asking for sleep aids, asking to talk to someone. He's finally ready to talk to someone. But no one, at least that day was there to receive him.

The other side to his story is that he's in school and working really hard to make his life better. He's a rock star stud! He's not only testified before Congress for better VA treatment, ran marathons and competed in down hill skiing in Aspen on a mono-ski, he recently brought light to a potential solution for PTSD: Hyperbaric Oxygen therapy. His highly effective personal skills convinced a producer for CBS World News' Katie Couric to do a story on this treatment hoping to convince the VA that it's a therapy that has worked. Or at least it has for him. But like with any treatment, once is not enough. He is currently seeking other places that provide this treatment.

We ended up having dinner at the Wing's house that night. The three of us drank red wine, sang really loudly and badly to The Doors, danced around the kitchen. As I watched this young man take off his legs and get himself into the hot tub, my heart sank, broke and repaired itself all over again. He is not to be pitied by any means, but if anyone deserves a second chance, it's him. He's a true American Hero. He may not have ever anticipated that his life would be about charging his leg so it works, wheelchair ramps, or the idea that dancing now happens from the waist up, but that's where he is. And he is doing an amazing job, but he needs help to start his New Beginning.

This Hyperbaric Oxygen treatment, is from what I can tell, a very significant piece in this long, complicated, messy puzzle to helping him and the countless others who suffer from PTSD heal. Truly Heal. So what I would have said to that audience of women had I met Chad before I spoke, is that Second Chances and New Beginnings require compassion from friends and strangers, you can't do any of it alone. I can see his new beginning just around the corner, if he gets the help he needs and deserves. We need to help him see it too.

Note to Self: Give to the Veterans any way that you can.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Andrea for sharing Chad's story and for always sharing a part of yourself!! As an RN, I know a little about how veterans are treated and it is appalling! Things definitely need to change and it needs to be a group effort!