Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times
The first steps
It's a cool, sunny morning when Jordan and his mother pull up to the VA Medical Center, a sprawling, red-brick complex on green grounds that resemble a college campus. They're late, unaccustomed to how long it takes him to do mundane things now -- brush his teeth, use the toilet, get dressed, walk to the car, get in the car, get out of the car. They're frustrated with each other, having forgotten some of his paperwork at home.
She pushes him inside in his wheelchair, where sunlight streams through a glass atrium. Dozens of veterans are waiting, reading magazines, dozing in the disinfectant-swabbed lobby. Most are old men, battered by age and ailment. They use wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes, motorized scooters. Jordan sits among them, frowning -- he wants his old legs back.
Soon, his physical therapist fits him with crutches and helps him take his first steps. Jordan wobbles around the room, balancing himself as though on a tightrope. In less than a month, he's gone from bedridden to a wheelchair to a wheeled walker and now crutches.
"Yeah," he says, grinning. "Sweet!"
In less than a month, he's gone from bedridden to a wheelchair to a wheeled walker and now crutches.
Later, after Jordan swallows his daily fistful of pain pills and antibiotics, doctors check and clean his wounds, which are held together by bundles of black sutures. Larry Lipscomb, a physician, cuts the camouflage-colored cast off his left leg. It looks raw, but its pulse is good, the X-rays promising, the swelling down, no infection showing. He swabs a dime-size hole in the ankle and sends it off for testing.
Lipscomb and a nurse use tweezers to start removing the sutures, which resemble long zippers up and down his leg. They work gently, but the damaged nerves feel like they are on fire. Jordan groans, bites down on his fist. It feels like they're pulling rope through his skin.
They apologize, keep gently teasing the sutures out. Jordan stuffs his sweat shirt in his mouth to stop his cries, then covers his whole face as if he's an ostrich hiding from the pain. His mother tries to comfort him when they reach his ankle, the worst spot.
"It's going to hurt," she whispers.
"Don't say that!" he snaps. "How'd you like it if they said, 'That baby's going to hurt when it comes out?' "
Ginger touches his shoulder tenderly.
"Don't touch me!" he says.
Ten minutes later, it's over. Jordan is exhausted, trembling. Lipscomb puts on a new cast, then rests his hand on Jordan's shoulder.
"Do me a favor, son," he says. "If you're going back again, take better care of yourself."
Jordan smiles, reaches out to shake hands, but the doctor bends down and hugs him in his wheelchair.
"I appreciate what you've done," Lipscomb whispers, his eyes welling up. "The war, the war..."
"I appreciate what you do, too, doc," Jordan says. "We're on the same team."
They go their separate ways down the hallway. Jordan waits silently for the elevator. He's still thinking about the doctor.
"He got a little teary and his lip quivered," he says. "It surprised me. I don't know if he's against the war or just -- I don't know. Maybe he's just hurting for me. I don't cry, but I almost did when he hugged me. I almost couldn't take it."