Soldier braces for a new leg

By Mike Hixenbaugh
Rocky Mount Telegram
Aug. 17, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Shooting pains keep him awake some nights.

The steel pins that have been drilled deep into bone to hold Michael Beck’s war-damaged right leg together irritate his skin. Without proper care, the rod entry points become dry, red and full of pus, making the most simple of maneuvers agonizing for the 21-year-old Rocky Mount native.

Since arriving four months ago at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., with two shattered legs and countless other gashes and burns, those 20-or-so pins have been a constant nag; a glaring hitch in the continuing recovery process.

Not all pain is as apparent.

Sometimes Beck can feel what, he said, seem like bee stings on the bottom of his twisted right foot. Patients often report the stinging sensation when impaired nerve endings begin to repair themselves, doctors say. It’s a part of the process.

Likewise, although many of the 100 shrapnel wounds and burns that cover Beck’s body have healed significantly since the April 6 mortar explosion in Iraq, the occasional cracked scab and broken blister still are a heavy burden.

Nothing, though, is as physically painful or disorienting for Beck as the stabbing sensation that rings through his left foot some nights. The pain comes with little warning and no explanation. Beck feels his toes cramp. The bottom of his foot begins to burn, and he can’t help but wince. The throbbing seems to begin at the surface of the skin and penetrates deep into his foot.

Morphine doesn’t seem to quell the pain. Even at Walter Reed, there is no lotion, pill or shot to fully eliminate the hurt in Beck’s left foot.

That’s because surgeons amputated the appendage more than a month ago.

“It was weird at first, not seeing my leg there,” said Beck, who asked doctors to remove what was left of his left foot above the ankle to allow for a more comfortable prosthetic. “But it didn’t really faze me too much. I woke up and just rubbed the end of my leg and realized, ‘this must be how all the other guys felt.’ It was kind of hard to adjust.”

Nothing about the last four months has been easy, though.

Mother’s load

The pain Lynn Beck has faced since her son arrived in Washington can’t be described as easily as Michael’s. She hesitates to share it with him, but her son’s recovery has begun to wear heavy on her.

Lynn’s life remains on hold as she continues to live in Washington and care for her son up to 12 hours a day.

When Michael Beck arrived at Walter Reed with mangled limbs and a bleak outlook for recovery, Lynn was there to comfort him. When he was discharged to the Mologne House in July as an Army outpatient, Lynn became his primary caregiver. When her son was readmitted to Walter Reed weeks later for additional surgeries, she attempted to ease her son’s disappointment while working to hide her own. And now, more than four months since the far-away explosion that forever changed her life, still living in a hotel about 230 miles from home, Lynn said she is running out of energy.

“Seeing his leg gone, seeing my son lay there and not seeing part of his leg and seeing him in pain, it’s hard,” Lynn said. “I can’t let him see that it’s hard, but it’s tough for me. It might be harder on me than it is on him.”

Beck’s sister Jennifer and his fiancee, Meschelle Rowe, have made a number of trips to the hospital in recent weeks to offer help, but both have other responsibilities and lives outside the amputee ward at Walter Reed.

Not Lynn, though. Not right now, she said.

The Beck family’s struggle has been complicated by what Lynn considers a lack of care from Walter Reed staff workers in recent weeks.

When Beck initially arrived at the hospital, Lynn raved about the support offered by doctors and nurses. Since being readmitted for surgery, however, both Lynn and her son have at times been disappointed.

“I don’t think the care is as good this time,” Lynn said. “Since he was readmitted, I’ve had to complain to get things done for him. He still has 16 pins in his right leg, yet one day they didn’t have cotton swabs to clean them. This is the ward where you have amputees. Why are you out of Q-tips?”

Even worse, Lynn said, her son has not received a single bath in the month since returning to the hospital.

“This is how they treat wounded soldiers fighting for our freedom,” Lynn said. “I still say this is a good hospital. But they aren’t treating Mike the same as they were when we first arrived.”

Lynn has been left to pick up the slack, all the while helping her son cope with indescribable pain and the psychological traumas of war.

A new reality

When Beck heard the mortar alert sound at Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah outside of Baghdad, he and Staff Sgt. Emanuel Pickett ran and attempted to shield themselves from the ensuing blast. But Beck came home a broken man and Pickett returned home in a casket.

In the months leading up to the explosion, Beck spent countless hours with Pickett, in and out of combat, learning life lessons from a man he came to consider a father. The mental anguish associated with Pickett’s death hasn’t faded in the last four months, Beck said. But it has been overshadowed by the day-to-day monotony of hospital life.

The amputation of his left leg has been harder to cope with than Beck imagined. After making what doctors considered great strides toward recovery in June and July, the 5-foot-10-inch Beck has dropped weight again, now below 120 pounds. Back in Iraq, Beck weighed more than 145 pounds.

Being restricted to motorized hospital beds and his wheelchair allows him little in the way of exercise, and any appetite Beck had built was erased by increased dosages of pain medication, IV therapy and grueling rehabilitation sessions.

Army surgeons have performed multiple graft operations, using cadaver bones to rebuild Beck’s right leg. But for all the effort, it’s becoming less and less likely the leg will be salvaged.

“I don’t think his right leg is going to be saved in the end,” Lynn said. “I really don’t. They’re working so hard to save it, but even Mike says it himself, the leg is a mess. I can’t imagine them being able to save it.

“All I can hope is that they can at least save it from the knee up.”

Four months ago, Walter Reed and the men and women there were an inspiration to the Becks, a beacon of hope indicating that a man could recover from horrible injuries and someday, somehow return to a normal life. That sentiment still holds, but it has faded.

“It has really just started to set in,” Lynn said, days after learning that local volunteers constructed a wheelchair ramp at her Rocky Mount home in anticipation of Michael’s future return. “My son isn’t supposed to be handicapped. He shouldn’t need a wheelchair. He should be going crazy, jumping boulders on the Tar River. This isn’t how it should be.”

Last month, Army officials awarded Beck the Purple Heart. Tears streamed down Beck’s cheeks, and family snapped dozens of photos as Capt. Leland Pearson of the N.C. National Guard’s 1132nd Military Police Co. presented him with the medal at the hospital.

It was a great honor, Beck said in hindsight, one of the proudest moments of his young life.

But as he said a few weeks after arriving at the hospital, “it’s not worth the pain of all this. I wish I didn’t need to be awarded a Purple Heart.”

In the same way, Beck said he was excited on Friday to be fitted for his first prosthetic leg. The apparatus will someday help Beck to walk again and, with time, maybe allow him a chance to once again fish off the banks of the Tar River. After a bit of training, the new leg will undoubtedly improve Beck’s life.

Still, he wishes he didn’t need it.

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