Walter Reed Clinic's Cheerful Chaos (and a Brownie) Soothes All but the Toughest

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Regular readers of this space know Adele Levine for her humorous outlook. This is a glimpse into the serious side of her life:

No matter how badly you might appear after living through an explosion that killed your battle buddies, blew your long legs off and opened you up like a can of tuna, in Walter Reed's physical therapy clinic you are greeted with smiles and jokes and the occasional cheer. In fact, it's not unusual for the entire room to stand up and applaud the first time you are able to come down to the physical therapy clinic -- whether it's via stretcher or wheelchair.

"Look at you!" Everyone will say. "You are doing great!"

My co-workers are relentlessly cheerful. We never talk about the staggering injuries we see; instead, we discuss with great enthusiasm products that are sold only on late-night television. Products like cans of Spray-on Hair and the ShamWow. Going so far, after much pantomimed imitation of the infomercial, of actually ordering a Snuggie from the 1-800 number.

Because life in the physical therapy clinic at Walter Reed is always a celebration, complete with cake and ice cream and someone jumping around in a blue blanket with sleeves.

We celebrate every birthday, promotion and anniversary of the terrible day that brought you to Walter Reed with an ice cream social. Homemade cookies and fudge made by local church ladies are brought to Walter Reed once a week. Delivered directly to the physical therapy clinic (where you are not actually supposed to eat). Because nothing soothes phantom limb pain better than a homemade brownie.

Professional entertainment is usually readily available, and the patients host many a celebrity visitor inside the physical therapy clinic. Where groups of hand-shaking congressmen, professional baseball teams and the patient's favorite type of visitor -- cheerleaders -- are first escorted around the glass perimeter.

Our visitors have ranged from Jon Stewart to President Obama to a disappointing group of un-funny clowns. Our most unusual visitor, in my opinion, was a local woman who showed up pulling her harp on a hand trolley. She set up her harp in the clinic and, amid the chaos of medicine balls whizzing past her ear and patients tottering about on unsteady prosthetic legs, serenaded us with beautiful classical music.

Most people enjoy the happy atmosphere inside the physical therapy clinic. With the seeming exception of one man: the Marine liaison, a squat, flat-nosed man who resembles, at a distance, a fire hydrant. Worried that the Army is babying his Marines, he frequently surveys the chaos in the clinic with a frown. Cheerleaders? Cookies?

He doesn't come in every day, but as luck would have it, the day the harpist was there the Marine liaison came walking briskly down the hallway. He surveyed his Marines through the glass walls of the clinic, checking off that they were present, in uniform and working hard. He hadn't seen the harpist yet. Everyone on the other side of the glass seemed to collectively freeze -- except the harpist, who continued to play, eyes closed, unaware of the drama unraveling behind her. Which was exactly when the Marine liaison noticed her.

Staring at the animated harpist through the glass window. he seemed to silently implode. We waited for him to erupt into the room and start yanking Marines out of the clinic, but instead his eyes narrowed and he spun on his heel and marched quickly away.

The harpist kept playing, and the Marines went back to walking in the parallel bars and lifting weights.

-- Adele Levine, Wheaton


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