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Healing With Humor
Patients at Walter Reed, Who Have Lost Limbs but Not Their Ability to Laugh, Find That a Joke Can Be the Best Therapy

By Christian Davenport Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009

He knows they're going to stare. They always stare.

As soon as Pat Murray steps in the elevator, they'll notice his prosthetic leg and maybe accurately surmise that, yes, he is an Iraq war veteran, and, yes, he got blown up. Then the sadness will sink in, the pity, and they'll give him that look, which he can sense even if he doesn't see, and it will be an uncomfortable few floors up.

So as Murray approaches the elevator and the woman thrusts her hand between the closing doors for him, he says, "Careful, you can lose a limb that way."

"Oooh," the woman says, noticing Murray's metal leg. She's obviously shocked, unsure of what to say or how to act. Murray flashes a smile, lets loose an "it's okay" chuckle, and suddenly the ride up isn't nearly so awkward after all.

It's that type of humor -- spontaneous (he once asked his doctor when his leg would grow back), cunning (he tells children who ask about his "robot" leg that he didn't eat his vegetables) and, at times, gruesome (there are stump jokes that can't be printed here) -- that helped him come to terms with the fact that his right leg is no more.

It was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that Murray, who was a corporal in the Marine Corps, not only learned to walk again, but to laugh. Although doctors and therapists can patch up the physical wounds of war, it is often the humor -- soldier to soldier, Marine to Marine, patient to patient -- that in the space of a punch line can heal as well as the best medicine.

"What's an amputee's favorite restaurant?" asked Staff Sgt. Brian Schar, who lost both legs in Iraq. "IHOP."

Yes, the humor can be offensive and galling -- burn victims sometimes call each other "crispy," for example. The sphere of people who can get away with telling amputee jokes is tightly defined, and not every wounded warrior is able to crack jokes about the fact that he has a hard time going up stairs or holding a coffee cup. But for others, it's the ultimate palliative as they move from denial to anger to acceptance.

"You have to have fun with it," said Kevin Blanchard, who lost his left leg while on patrol in Iraq in 2005. "And you can get away with murder, because who's going to yell at an amputee?"

Wounds heal faster when they become not a wound but a practical joke, a gag. At a restaurant with a friend, Blanchard, now a student at George Washington University, stabbed his prosthetic foot with a steak knife and pretended to howl in pain. At Kings Dominion amusement park, he removed his leg before getting on a suspended roller coaster where riders' feet dangle freely. As the ride coasted to a stop, he started screaming loud enough for those in line to hear: "Do not get on that ride! It'll rip your legs off!"

Murray says laughter helped him keep his "mind off the fact of what an absolutely horrible situation you are in -- how you went from being a big, bad-ass terrorist fighter to having your mother pushing you around in a wheelchair."

It helped that his fellow Marines dished it out in the physical therapy room as if they had never left the front lines. He loved how the sad, tragic place could give way so easily to hilarity. How service members called each other "Gimpy" and "Peg-leg" and "one-legged bastard." Those with one arm were known as "Five" for the number of fingers they had left.

On a whim, Murray and a fellow patient, a double amputee, made business cards to pass out to women in bars that read: "2 1 3 Inc./2 Chumps 1 Leg 3 Stumps/Part Time Human Bomb Detectors/Full Time Lady Killers/Professional Cigarette Smokers."

Patients at Walter Reed competed to print up T-shirts that capture the tone of much of the hospital hallway banter: "Buy a Marine. 25-50 percent off. Some assembly required."

And: "Dude, where's my leg?"

And: "I went to Iraq, lost my leg and all I got was this T-shirt."

One of his best friends had professionally printed on his prosthetic: "I did it for the parking."

Schar, who lost both his legs in 2007, and some friends created a top 10 list of positive things about being a double amputee. Among them: "Your feet don't smell," "you can wear the same socks for weeks" and "you can always wear shorts."

Once, while Schar was pushing himself up a steep hill in his wheelchair, someone asked whether he needed a hand.

"No, man, my hands are good," Schar responded. "Can you give me a couple of feet?"

When Ryan Kules first got to Walter Reed in late 2005, he didn't see anything funny about the fact that he had lost his right arm and left leg. He was still in agonizing pain -- and denial -- and hurting over the loss of two buddies who were killed by a roadside bomb that exploded directly under their Humvee.

It took nine months before reality sank in and the former Army captain was finally able to join the joking that was so prevalent at the hospital. Kules's wife eventually commented on the fact that, minus his right arm and left leg, his body now formed an odd angle.

"You're like a backslash," she said.

Months before, he might have found the remark distasteful or insulting. But now he embraces the new nickname.

"Unfortunately, there are people who never get to that point," said the Bowie resident, who works with the Wounded Warrior Project helping veterans get jobs. "You can make fun of yourself, or not -- but that can suddenly lead down a very dark road." Humor "is coming to terms with the way your body is now, and part of that process is being able to laugh about it and being able to joke around with people who are in similar situations as you."

Which is key. The right to joke about lost limbs is usually reserved for close friends and fellow amputees. If a stranger called Murray gimpy or peg-leg out of the blue, "I'm going to hit him in the head with my prosthetic."

Last fall, Ross Colquhoun, called the "able-bodied freak" by the Walter Reed patients he takes on outdoor expeditions, was with a group of amputees at a store, shopping for supplies for a hunting trip. The patients were, as usual, going at it. At one point, the Walter Reed staffer called one soldier "gimpy" and threatened to tie another's wheelchair to the van's bumper and drive him home like that.

"Did you hear what that guy just said?" a nearby shopper told his friend. "I can't believe he's talking to them like that. I'm going to kick his butt if he keeps it up."

The strangers confronted Colquhoun, who explained that they were all from Walter Reed and that, yes, the joking was raw, but that's how they communicate. "They were dumbfounded," he said.

Army Staff Sgt. Kurtis Dellicker has catalogued his wounds so many times, he has his shtick down pat.

The left side of his face is paralyzed, "so I won't ever need Botox." And numb: "So I can really take a punch in bar fights." And he's deaf in his left ear, so "I get half off on headphones."

The jokes, delivered deadpan, are his way of saying he has accepted the way he is, has moved on and wishes others would, too.

"That's how I make it through the day, especially here at Walter Reed," he said. "To be in this place, you have to have a sense of humor or you'll lose your mind."

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