Soldier Gets New Leg As Next Step In Recovery

An AP Member Exchange
The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - After a short break in his physical-therapy session, Army Spc. Michael Hayes of Louisville received his marching orders.


"All right, we're walking," barked Maj. Stuart Campbell, a physical therapist at Brooke Army Medical Center. " See the bucket of water here? Get there and back as far as you can without hurting yourself, and maintaining a good gait. Come on - why are you pulling your knee up? Walk."

It was a typical day in Hayes' painstaking rehabilitation, more than 10 months after an explosion in the Iraqi city of Ramadi cost him his left leg. Hayes was injured when an improvised explosive device turned his Humvee on its side.

Three others in the Humvee were killed.

Hayes' recovery, chronicled by The Courier-Journal, achieved a milestone in May: He was fitted with a prosthetic leg.

He's learning to use it - both in San Antonio and now, while athome in Louisville on a one-month leave.

"It's good just to have more freedom, going from a wheelchair and crutches" to walking without even a cane, Hayes said late last month during a session in San Antonio. Hayes, who is single, turned 21 on June 29.

"Last week, I went shopping, and for the first time I was able to push the cart and grab the groceries and talk on the phone all at the same time while I was walking," said Hayes, who lives in an Army barracks near the medical center.

Campbell, who has worked with Hayes since he began his recovery last fall, said he's impressed with Hayes' spirit as he undergoes his twice-daily, two-hour therapy sessions.

To get to this point, Hayes underwent several surgeries and had to recover from a crushed heel, shrapnel wounds and burns that covered more than a third of his body.

"He worked real hard to get to the big step to get into his leg," Campbell said. "Now it's just fine-tuning the walking, letting the tissues adapt and then working toward the next level of what he wants to do."

Hayes is far from alone in his pursuit.

More than 100 other amputees and severely burned soldiers also are undergoing therapy at Brooke's gleaming new Center for the Intrepid, a $50 million structure with an onsite prosthetics designer and such things as a running track, climbing wall and weight machines.

The center, flooded with sunlight from large windows and decorated with stars and stripes, even has a model apartment equipped with everything from coffee pots to cradles so injured soldiers can relearn the most basic living skills.

Hayes said that when he first got to Brooke, he thought the facilities at the hospital building were good.

But "when I first walked into (the new center) and started working out, I was awe-struck," he said.

"Of course, unfortunately it's kind of a necessity because we have so many (injured) soldiers."

During the week of May 14-18, the most recent for which statistics were available, 114 amputees and burn victims worked out at the center, said spokesman Mike Dulevitz.

As of June 27, according to the Department of Defense, 3,968 soldiers had been killed in military operations in and around Iraq and Afghanistan, and 27,692 had been wounded.

Some 630 service members have lost limbs, hands or feet in these and other recent operations, according to Department of Defense figures as of April 30. Another 288 have suffered the loss of fingers or toes.

Patients are taking advantage of technological advances in prosthetics. Many ultimately will be equipped with both a mechanical limb and one with a computer chip, each to be used in different circumstances.

Therapists have patients learn to walk first on the mechanical limb so they don't become overly dependent on the computerized one. Even after they receive the latter, they might still want to use the mechanical limb in situations such as hikes in the woods, where there's a risk of damage to the computerized parts, Campbell said.

"The good thing is, our guys all know how to do both of them," he said.

Those who want to jog regularly can use a third type of prosthesis designed for running.

With these artificial limbs, some soldiers are going back into active duty and even into combat, Campbell said.

For Hayes, the biggest challenge after spending several months in a wheelchair and on crutches is to relearn how to balance his weight on both legs.

That's crucial, Campbell says, because putting too much weight on his right side could lead to long-term problems.

"If we can make him efficient now, we can keep him when he's 40, 45, from having all kinds of problems with his back or his hips or something else," he said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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