Second Life

By Mike Hixenbaugh
Rocky Mount Telegram
July 6, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C.

For a few seconds on April 6, 2008, as the sun set over the desert horizon, Michael Beck ‘s 20-year-old heart stopped.

Medical experts call it “extreme trauma,” but as far as Beck is concerned, for a few moments on a gurney in Baghdad, he was dead.

More than half of his blood supply had poured out of him after the mortar blast, puddling around his mangled body as he lay frozen by shock. Beck had hemorrhaged six pints by the time medical workers temporarily bandaged the 14-inch stomach gash that stretched from his sternum to his pelvic bone.

His blood pressure was depressed. His heart rate accelerated. His brain function was failing. His breathing slowed. And for a few seconds that day, according to Army medical records, Beck was clinically dead.

“I guess I was in real bad shape,” Beck said recently while sitting outside Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t really know how bad it was.”

Medics performed a massive blood transfusion to resuscitate Beck , injecting crystalloid solutions and blood through his arteries to restore oxygen distribution throughout his body and to stimulate heart activity and normal breathing. The risky procedure of fluid resuscitation — tweaked and perfected during the course of two world wars and countless other wars and conflicts — saved the Rocky Mount native’s life.

Heavily sedated and in shock, Beck ‘s recollection of the events following the mortar blast that occurred three months ago today are sketchy at best. He remembers the explosion — the physical force of his body being thrust through the air — but he blacked out afterward. When he came to, he was on his back surrounded by thick smoke and covered in blood. He gasped through the haze, struggling to breath and unable to feel his legs.

A female medic began working on his wounds inside the bunker, he recalls. Moments later, he was carried on a stretcher and placed in the back of a truck. As the vehicle pulled away, Beck said he could hear the mortar alert sounding again and a couple more explosions fading into the distance.

That’s when he passed out. His next memory is in Washington.

Until last week, when Beck ‘s uncle Ray Beasley first read through the medical records, Beck didn’t know exactly what doctors did to him during hospital stops in Baghdad and Germany. He didn’t know how hard they fought to save him.

He didn’t realize how close he was to coming home in a casket.

Still a soldier

Lynn Beck , having spent the last three months caring for her son at Walter Reed, didn’t have time to digest the reality of her youngest child’s near-death, chronicled page by page in his medical records. She was busy attempting to master his medication schedule and push him to each of his appointments.

On June 16 — a little more than two months after arriving at Walter Reed with two shattered legs, several damaged organs and more than 100 burns and gashes –; Beck was discharged from the hospital as an outpatient. He stays with his mother at the Mologne House, a 200-room hotel on the grounds of Walter Reed where the wounded of America’s wars are provided a bed, three meals a day and a little bit of free time.

The tenants of the Mologne House still are soldiers, though, so their lives are ruled by platoon sergeants. Each morning, Beck is required to rise at dawn for formation as part of what Army officials call “Warrior Transition.”

If a doctor appointment interferes with formation, Beck must report the conflict to his commander.

“I think it’s good for him,” said Lynn Beck , who is responsible for pushing her son’s wheelchair to each of his medical and military appointments. “It keeps him from getting lazy and gives him a reason to get up.”

But Beck said reporting to formation is a frustration to him.

“After a long day of (physical therapy) and doctor visits, I usually just want to relax in the room,” Beck said, admitting though that he has been happier since being released from the 24-hour supervision of hospital workers.

Reporting to superiors and working to make it to appointments is the cost of freedom, it seems, for wounded Army outpatients like Beck .

Still dreaming

Although she said she’s glad — proud even — to help her son transition as an outpatient, Lynn Beck constantly reminds him that there was a reason she didn’t go to nursing school like her older sister.

During the course of each day, Lynn injects her son with two shots of blood thinner and gives him three pills to numb his nerve-damaged legs, two doses of morphine, a stool softener, laxative and several essential vitamins.

She helps him in and out of his bed, washes his clothes and occasionally cooks in the small kitchenette located in the hotel room.

When she’s not pushing her son to an appointment, Lynn is usually writing in her planner, trying to figure out where he needs to go next.

“I feel like I’m still in the dream phase of it all,” Lynn said during a brief stint of downtime. “I can’t tell you what happened to the months of April and June. I don’t know how to explain it. When I sleep at night, I dream about things here at the hospital. I dream about people I’ve met here and places around the hospital campus.

“I don’t want this place to start feeling like home. I want this to feel like a hotel.”

As doctors work to save both of Michael Beck ‘s legs from amputation, medical advisers have suggested it could be more than a year before he’s able to leave the hospital. It’s a reality that both Beck and his mother are trying to tackle one day — sometimes one hour — at a time.

But given where he has come from, when he considers how lucky he is to be alive, Beck said he’s confident he can get through the pain and discomfort of a long-term hospital visit.

“It’s pretty weird knowing that I was gone and that I actually came back to life,” Beck said, still floored by the realization. “It’s amazing to me.”

It’s the kind of information that makes Beck ‘s journey toward recovery all the more rewarding. When this is all over; after all the surgeries are finished and Beck is able to stand and fish and drive again — when he gets out of Walter Reed and finally heads home — it’ll be a new beginning.

Lynn is sure of that.

“They brought me back to life,” Michael Beck said, his voice rising toward the end of the statement, as if hearing the news for the first time.

In a way, when Beck returns to Rocky Mount, he’ll be a man reborn.

But he’s not there yet.

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