By Adele Levine Avery. 278 pp. $26
Is it possible to find humor in the interval between a soldier’s crippling encounter with a roadside bomb and his first confident steps on a pair of new limbs? In her new memoir, therapist Adele Levine puts this question under the microscope, balancing a comedian’s touch for uncovering the exceptional in seemingly bleak subjects with all the tact of a doting nurse unbandaging a tender wound.
“If there’s anything you need to be a physical therapist,” Levine says, “it’s a sense of humor.” It’s this approach that threads through her honest retelling of her experience as a physical therapist in Walter Reed’s amputee department, making for a book that’s both uplifting and informative.
Levine is helpfully descriptive in explaining ailments common to wartime amputees, their rehabilitative exercises — including learning to wear a prosthetic leg — and the jargon of P.T. culture. She’s equally intent on describing the history behind the now-defunct Army Medical Center, with its “puffy pink cherry trees” and its “stone stairs [sagging] in the middle from a hundred years of footsteps.”
But it’s Levine’s use of a colorful cast of characters and their anecdotes that forms the crux of the story, dispelling what she considers the public’s tendency to see the wounded soldier as a tragic figure. As she encounters a double amputee with a propensity for using foul language and ditching therapy sessions for cigarette breaks, a former lieutenant with a penchant for having baked goods smuggled into the hospital, and an errant service dog repeatedly disciplined for excessive napping and sneaking off to the cafeteria, the reader gets a feel for the camaraderie and redemption that come with the physical therapy trade.
Although Levine largely sidesteps the controversy surrounding the shuttering of the hospital in 2011, she’s honest in turning a critical lens on her young self, “an unmoored dinghy, bobbing aimlessly around,” who initially expected a “straight job,” complete with a cushy salary and a Ford Mustang. Instead, she faced a rough-and-tumble world of late nights and work demands that sometimes put relationships on hold.
By the end of the book, some of the most rewarding moments have come from witnessing the simultaneous growth of the patient and therapist, the latter in many ways just as misunderstood as the soldiers. “I never talked about my job and no one ever asked,” Levine writes. “I was just a good person stuck in the trenches of humanity.”