Saturday, January 31, 2009

Convalescent Leave

After about two weeks of inpatient care, Allen's doctors allowed him to take 30 days of convalescent leave so that he could be home for the holidays. We were pretty exctied about this since it had been a couple of weeks since I had seen the boys, and it had been almost a year since Allen had. It was also time for the boys to get to see Dad. They had done remarkably well under the difficult circumstances, but it was time they could see for themselves that he was okay.

December 6, 2007 Allen and I left Walter Reed and flew back to Kansas. There were many hoops to jump through to get everything approved and taken care of before we left, but we did it. Going home brought many emotions for all of us. Allen was completely overwhelmed and relieved to be home. I was overjoyed to see my kids again. It was the longest time I had ever been away from them at that point. The boys were just thrilled to have both of us home. After all it had been about 11 months since we had all been together as a family.

We spent several days just being home and together. The boys still had school, but outside of that we didn't do a whole lot. It was a difficult time to be home in some ways, just because of the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season. We actually requested that not a lot of people come by to visit so that Allen felt completely comfortable and had a little bit of time to adjust to being back in America. He also had to adjust to being a dad and husband again. For a long time, throughout the length of two deployments, he only had to take care of himself in the day to day. Now he had to adjust to being a part of a family again, and an active part at that. Still today, some 14 months later, we are all still adjusting. It does get better, but it takes a lot of time and patience from everyone.

The 30 days at home went way too fast. We enjoyed a quiet Christmas and New Year, with just our immediate family, my parents, and sister. It was awesome being a family unit again at such an important time of the year. On Christmas Eve we went to a Candle light communion service at our church, something we do every year. We had them reserve the back row for us, but Allen still had a very difficult time with it. We actually ended up making a quick exit and had to get him home. The candle light and being around so many people is a big trigger for him. However, at the time I was still very much learning what his triggers are. It can be very scary when a new trigger makes it's presence known, but I had to learn to stay calm and handle the situation. Even now, new things will trigger him that I am not prepared for but I have the confidence to handle them calmly and swiftly. We actually have not been to church since this night. Hopefully someday soon, he will have the confidence and tools that will allow us to attend services again.

The first part of January took us back to preparing to leave Makale and Dreyson again. We were to fly back to Walter Reed January 7, 2008, for what we thought would be just a couple of weeks. That couple of weeks turned into closer to three months which I will go into in a later post. Needless to say now though, our kids are leery of us having to leave and the time we will actually be gone. Makale regularly reminds us, that we were gone much longer than the two weeks we had promised.

Leaving the boys to go back to WRAMC was really difficult for me. I have a very hard time with goodbyes period, but to leave my kids again was awful. The few days leading up to leaving and then telling them goodbye was extremely painful. We were all in tears. Thanks so much to my wonderful parents and my sister who took care of the boys while we were gone. I know it wasn't easy, but they did an outstanding job.

Even Now.......Gina

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ward 58 WRAMC

Our time on Ward 58 brought many things. It was a time for healing, learning, fear, love, understanding....just to name a few. During our time here as an in patient, I saw many things that I have now come to know as normal. They were however, very scary the first few times I experienced them.

Once we moved to the fifth floor, I became more of Allen's caregiver. The nurse's here were mostly wonderful. However, we did at times have the ones we wish we had never met. We also met some who became our friends and we still keep in contact with. Really though, the nurses had it pretty easy in our room as I did everything I could for him. And, let me just tell you, I was definitely not cut out to be a nurse. I do not do blood well. Scraped knees are not a problem, but cuts or running blood have me running.

Allen was still very sore and stiff, especially from his chest tube. I learned to help him sponge bathe, change his dressing on his wound, dress, toilet and whatever else he needed. One of my scariest nights the entire time I was at Walter Reed happened the first night we stayed on Ward 58. Right after moving to this floor, they hooked Allen up to an EEG to monitor his brain waves. I had been instructed to push a button on the machine if anything out of the ordinary started happening with him. They were looking for seizure activity. Initially the night started out okay. However, about 1:00 am it took a turn for the worse. I think that a nightmare started and at times there seemed to be some seizure activity. The nurse ended up being in our room the majority of the rest of that night. I do not think anyone near our room got any sleep. (I also have to say that this is the worst night he has had since the blast. He still has nightly nightmares, but this was by far the worst.) Several times through the night, the nurse called for help from other nurses on the floor. She had control over the button the rest of the night and I don't think she ever put it down. Allen became very vocal and agitated although he was still asleep. He also looked extremely fearful. The longer it went on the worse it all became. I was terrified but also able to keep very calm and quiet. I just kind of watched it all unfold from the corner of the room. At one point during this nightmare, he actually saw me and he said to me, "Oh hi honey, come one we have to get to the gate." So, he came conscience enough to know I was there but instead of coming back out of his dream, he took me into his dream with him. He also happened to get a hold of my hand during that brief moment and wouldn't let go. He squeezed my fingers so tight that at one point I was afraid I may end up with some broken digits. He never did get combative and managed to stay in his bed although there was a great deal of movement involved. I think it was about 5:00 am when he finally came out of this state. It was really bizarre. It appeared that he was awake and I now think that he was more awake than asleep. I think it was a severe flashback rather than a nightmare. Then I had no idea what was going on or why. I remember later feeling like he was never going to really come home. I also remember being afraid that he may end up in an institution or hospitalized for a psychiatric problem. For the EEG they had a ton of leads glued to his head and then wrapped with gauze. He kept grabbing at the wrap thinking it was his kevlar helmet. He kept saying how tight his kevlar was and that he needed to get it off. We managed to keep it on and keep him from getting any further injuries. It was a long night and very scary for me, but also helped to prepare me for things I have had to deal with since.

That was the worst time during the entire in patient stay. They continued to monitor him on the EEG for 24 hours. The test ended up showing no seizure activity in his brain, but me and the nurses sure thought he was having seizures throughout that whole episode.

The rest of the time Allen was an in patient went very smoothly. He still did not want me gone for too long so I kept up the same routine of spending the night in his room then going to my room to shower in the morning. There were a couple of nights though that I had to get some sleep so I stayed in my room. He had someone in his room constantly doing something so it was hard to get a large block of sleep at one time. I knew that I had to get some uninterrupted sleep or I would end up sick as well.

We had several visitor's during this time. I already mentioned the celebrities that come through. We also had a social worker who would come see us as well as members of the Kansas National Guard who were in DC for meetings. Our state Adjunct General, Major General Bunting came to see us 3-4 times throughout our time at Walter Reed. We really like everyone from home who came to see us. It was always nice to catch up on stuff from home. Having MG Bunting come also made us feel like our sacrifice had not gone unnoticed. He truly cares and is a very genuine man. He made us thankful to be from Kansas.

On December 3, 2007 Major General Bunting came back and presented Allen with his Purple Heart award. Allen was so shocked that he was actually getting this award. I remember how honored he was and still is for that matter. He also brought several other Kansas officials with him. We had also invited some of my relatives to come who live in Fairfax Virginia. I had not seen them in years, and once again, Allen was so thankful that people would actually do this stuff for him. The nurses on the floor actually went and found a flag and held it up so that there was a flag for the back drop of the presentation. (You can see in the pictures that the flag is actually being held up. We laugh about that now.) Allen also insisted on wearing his uniform for this, even though he was still an in patient. Major Gonzalez brought him a new uniform so that he could be ready and he insisted on wearing it. I don't think he ever got the boots on but I'm sure he would have if he could have or if I would have let him!!

December 5, Allen was discharged from the hospital to go to a hotel to finish his recovery. They were giving him 30 days of convalescent leave so that he could go home for the holidays. They didn't have any rooms at the Mologne House still so they put us up at the Hilton in Silver Spring, Maryland. We stayed there a couple of days before going home for the holidays. We had to return January 6, 2008.
Even Now.....Gina

Saturday, January 10, 2009

SICU at Walter Reed

My first days at Walter Reed were overwhelming and had me out of my comfort zone most of the time.  Allen was in the SICU when I first saw him.  I was absolutely amazed at how great he looked.  He had some tubes and wires but greeted me with a huge smile.  His little room was pretty full when I arrived.  I had beat him to the hospital but they didn't take me to see him until he was somewhat settled in his room.  

The nurse was there trying to get everything settled.  It was pretty close to shift change too, which made things that much more chaotic.  There was a doctor or two in with him as well as SSG Sylvia Bastian, the National Guard liason for Walter Reed.  She ended up being a Godsend for us and we still keep in touch with her.  

One of the first things I remember about seeing my husband that first evening was that he quickly said hello to me and then turned to the doctor and asked when he could return downrange to his guys.  The doctor basically laid across his chest and told him very firmly that he would not be returning to Iraq anytime soon.  It was almost as if he had been waiting to see me since he was back in the states and as soon as he had he was good.  He was ready to roll as he would say.  

After seeing Allen, I didn't go back to my room until the next day.  He didn't want me to leave him, nor did I really want to leave him either.  I was also a little paranoid about finding my way around or back to my room for that matter.  Walter Reed was a big place and really intimidated this sheltered midwestern girl!

This is another area that needs to be improved on there for the families who are coming in.  I had no idea where to go or what to do.  I knew that there was a meeting the next morning (Monday) in the Mologne House lobby at 1000 hours.  (Everything worked on the 24 hour clock the military uses.)  In order for me to receive my per diem I would have to report to these meetings twice a week to sign in.  I had been told there was a shuttle that ran around the campus and that it would take me back to the Mologne House.  I also knew that I could walk, but once again I had no idea where it was.  (I am completely direction illiterate!)  

So, the first night I was there I stayed in a chair next to Allen in the SICU.  It was a very restless night as I was uncomfortable and in an ICU where there is always a lot going on.  I was very relieved though in a lot of ways because I had actually gotten to see Allen and see that he was going to be okay.  

The next morning I met another wife who was leaving the SICU to go back to the Mologne House.  So, she showed me around the hospital a little and showed me the short cut back to the hotel.  That was another one of the many angels who came our way.  She had been there for 2 or 3 months at that point and her husband was still in the SICU.  

The meetings that I had to go to were very overwhelming at first.  They are put on by the SFAC (soldiers family assistance center) and give out all the information we as caregivers need.  They go over benefits and all sorts of stuff.  They also passed out a map, (what a concept!)  

After the meeting I had major information overload.  I went back to my room for a shower and then headed back to the hospital.  When I got back to the hospital, Allen was in quite a bit of pain.  They had removed his chest tube while I was gone.  I was really thankful that I had been gone for this.  While I can now handle many things I never thought I could, I still do not handle blood and cuts or holes in the body very well.  I did however have to learn how to dress the wound from the tube as they did not stitch it.  They said that it was better to let it heal from the inside out.  

By that evening I was gaining confidence.  I now felt more comfortable finding my way around the hospital and campus.  I at least knew I could find the cafeteria, subway sandwich shop, and my room.  I was good.  I still didn't sleep in my room though.  Allen really didn't like me leaving him for very long at a time.  So, my routine became heading to my room in the morning to shower and change clothes and then going back to his room until the next morning.

After they had removed the chest tube, neurology came in to do their initial exam.  The neurologist actually tried several things to make him go into the seizures.  He even talked him into hyper ventilating which worked.  He actually hyper ventilated and began having seizure like activity.  I'm sure that my eyes were huge as I watched this all unfold.  However, this is when I probably first started becoming aware of the calmness I was able to deal with this stuff with.  It was very hard to watch though.  It did help me handle situations later on  though.  I figured that the more I saw in a controlled environment the better off I would be in the long run.  (This was so true as I have had to watch some pretty scary moments with my husband since this time.)  

Sometime throughout this time in the SICU psychiatry also came in and did evaluations.  They were always very nice and Allen really liked one in particular, Dr. Clark.  He was LTCOM for the Navy.  After Allen was moved to outpatient, he mentioned really missed Dr. Clark.  Many times he commented that he wished he could just talk to him again.

Later that Monday, Allen was transferred out of the SICU to the 5th floor, ward 58.  This is where the head trauma patients are.  Most of the guys wounded in theater would end up on ward 58 or 57.  Ward 57 was for the amputees.   These are also the wards where the celebrities who come to Walter Reed visit.  It is great that they take the time to do this.  However, more of them should.  We had the ARMY cheerleaders from West Point visit and the NFL referees from the Redskins.  Queen Latifah and Morris Chestnut were rumored to be coming when we were there but they never showed up.  Stevie Nicks came through but we were at an appointment and missed her.  She gave out ipods to all of the wounded warriors she met with.  The NYC Fire department came through the first part of December and brought a group of World War II POW's with them.  That was probably our favorite group.  We actually made lifelong friends with some of these people.  We also got to go on a trip to NYC with them later (more about that in another post.)  

Thankfully Allen's time in the SICU or any ICU didn't last too long.  Once he was moved to the other ward it was much easier for me to stay with him and help take care of him.  At this rate, I was beginning to think we wouldn't be there too long.  I was sure we would be home before Christmas!  

Even Now....Gina

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Arriving at Walter Reed

The Friday after Thanksgiving, November 23, 2007, I headed home from my sister's house.  She lives 2 1/2 hours from us and I had no idea when I would be leaving to be at Allen's bedside.  I had been told that Allen would be transferred back to the states as soon as there was a flight available and he was stable enough to make the trip.  I was also told that when he was put in the air, they would call me with my flight information.  They reassured me that I would be there waiting on him when he arrived.  However, at this point they still didn't know for sure where he would be going when he came to the states.  They had mentioned Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Bethesda Naval Medical Center, and Brooke Army Medical Center.  They thought it would be Walter Reed but didn't know for sure.

For a person who likes to plan things in advance this was not an easy time.  Of course, the trauma of it all was already extremely difficult, but then the addition of more uncertainty made me crazy.  The wait of all of this was horrible.  I think that it would have been easier on me to go ahead and go to Walter Reed.  That way I would know that I would be there as soon as he got there.  It also would have helped to acclimate myself to the hospital and the whole complex of Walter Reed before seeing my injured husband.

When I headed home from my sister's house, I left the boys behind.  I just needed to get home, in case I had to head to the airport.  My parents and my sister were planning to head to my house later in the day.  Looking back, I had absolutely no business driving home that day.  I should have just left my van at my sister's house and rode with someone else.  Most of the drive home is a complete loss for me.  I have a very hard time remembering any of it except for getting pulled over by a highway patrol officer.  This I remember!  I was speeding, (imagine that,) and he pulled me over.  I obviously didn't look too good and he even asked me if I was okay.  I explained my situation and he was nice enough to let me go.  He didn't even ask for any of the normal stuff.  He just asked me to set my cruise control and take it easy.  (Which I did.)

I also had a bit more of a reason to panic on my way home.  Just before I left my sister's, I had called to get an update on Allen.  I was transferred to the ICU in Germany and they couldn't find him.  They told me that he had been transferred.  I even asked some questions as to whether or not they were sure and they were positive.  I asked where he had been transferred to and they didn't have the record of that.   So, I panicked a little and thought that he had been transferred to the States and that they hadn't called me.  I was afraid that if I didn't get home I might miss my flight to meet him.  Upon arriving back home I called the person making my travel plans.  He did some checking and called me back.  He told me that they had just transferred him to a different floor.  He had been moved out of ICU, not to the States!  While I was relieved that he had been downgraded from ICU, I was not pleased about this mix up.  

Once my sister and my kids got home, we began trying to make plans.  That is not an easy task, when you are at the complete mercy of the Army, let me tell you.  I was very fearful of flying by myself.  I am a small town Kansas girl who had NEVER travelled on my own.  I had never had to be the grown up on vacations or trips I had taken in the past!  I was terrified.  We tentatively planned to have my parents keep the boys and my sister was going to try to travel with me.  However, we all did realize that this was Thanksgiving weekend.  We also knew that since my family was not considered his immediate family, the military would not make any arrangements for any of them even if we payed for it.  So, we were not able to try to get her an airline ticket until after I found out my arrangements, which were going to be completely last minute.  I didn't really like my odds, but what could I do about it? 

The rest of this weekend is pretty much a blur.  I think I was still in shock.  I was physically worn out but couldn't rest.  I didn't want to interact or talk to anyone.  I just wanted to get to wherever I could see my husband.  Allen's time out of the ICU didn't last long either at this point.  They had gotten him up to walk and he began having seizures on them again.  So, they moved him back to the ICU where he remained until after he arrived at Walter Reed.     

I can't remember for sure, but I don't think that I found out my itinerary until Saturday evening.  I would fly on Sunday morning.  Allen would also be flying out of Germany on Sunday and would arrive at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Sunday evening.  They assured me that I would be there waiting on him.  Needless to say, we were unable to get a flight for my sister.  I was flying on one of the busiest travel days of the year.  

Sunday morning my sister drove me to the airport on her way back home.  I was nervous and sick after having to tell my Makale and Dreyson goodbye.  (Makale was 11 and Dreyson was 4.)  It was hard enough having their dad gone, then injured, but now I was leaving too.  It was very hard on all of us.  

My flight ended up being fine.  I had no trouble even at Reagan International and finding the baggage claim and the people there to pick me up.  They sent a soldier in uniform which made it pretty easy to tell he was probably there for me.  It was dark, early evening, when I arrived and they took me straight to Mologne House (the hotel on Walter Reed) to check in.  They didn't have room for me there and put me up in the Guest House right across the street.  This was fine except I did have to share a bathroom with another room.  It ended up being fine though and was a very nice room.  From here they took me straight to the hospital.  We entered WRAMC and signed into the front desk.  We then went to the SFAC which is a family assistance center.  A lady took me into her office, (I cannot remember her name but she is a sweetheart).  She gave me a ton of stuff and pointers.  It was information overload about procedures, benefits, and a plethora of other important info.  (This is one of the things that I think needs to be changed.  I tried to give some suggestions to the powers that be while I was there but they didn't seem to care.)  She also explained that the buses hadn't come in yet, so I had beat my husband there.  After receiving all of the directions and information she had to give me, she took me to the SICU to see my husband.  

Finally, what I had been waiting for, for the past 11 months.......

Even Now,


Thursday, January 1, 2009

Deployments before injury

Allen is a member of the Kansas National Guard.  He has several years of active duty under his belt and just passed his 19 years of service mark.  His home unit is the 2/137 INF.  He was a part of bravo company, but I think he is now officially part of echo company.  They have completely restructured and he has not been an active part since this has occurred.  

August 2005 brought our first deployment into the war zone of Iraq.  He deployed with b co 2/137 INF.  They did warm up at Fort Sill and Fort Irwin.  He left the USA October 31, 2005.  (At least, that is how I remember it.  Allen accuses me of having a sympathetic TBI, kind of like sympathy weight gain men get with their wives pregnancy!)  During the first part of this deployment, Allen worked at the joint visitor's bureau on Camp Victory.  I used to tease him that he had it too easy there.  He literally called me several times a day.  Sometimes, it was to the point that I had to get off the phone in order to get things done!!  

The second part of the deployment wasn't like that.  He left the JVB to do base security.  His team was responsible for securing a portion of the perimeter of Camp Victory.  This also was not too bad since he really stayed on the Victory complex most of the time.  He had easy access to phones and internet so communication was pretty easy.  Looking back now, this first deployment was a walk in the park.

Towards the end of this deployment, Allen called one day and said that he had something that he wanted to talk to me about.  He went on to say that they had put out at formation that another unit was looking for volunteers to do a turn around mission.  There was another unit from Kansas that was deploying to Iraq and were short several men.  The command had put it out that if any of our guys were interested to let them know. 

 So, we talked about it.  I really felt that it was his decision.  Don't get me wrong.  I would have been irate had he not asked me first.  However, he was the one who was soon to be coming home to a civilian job he really wasn't very happy at.  He truly loves the military.  When he puts on that uniform, he is a totally different person.  I left the decision with him.  If he felt our family would benefit from it and he truly felt that is what he wanted to do then I would support him. 

We didn't really talk about it a whole lot again.  I knew that he was probably going to give them his name and I really was okay with that.  Once I get into some sort of a routine, I have found that I can do about anything.  Routine is the key for me.  

November of 2006 brought him home again.  We had the welcome home ceremony and all the welcome home adjustments.  I had always thought they were crazy when they told me there were coming home adjustments.  Little did I know I was very wrong!!  (That is for another post!)  

When he came home from that deployment, he really didn't know whether or not he was going on the return deployment.  He even went back to his civilian job because we didn't know.  He made several calls a week and no one seemed to really know.  Then, shortly before Christmas, he got that phone call.  (Then I wasn't so sure I should have been so supportive.)  It is totally different to let them go once they've come home, than from agreeing while they are away.  The call said that he had to report January 2, 2007.  

The holidays came and went much too quickly.  We had only had him home for 60 days, the day he ended up leaving again.  He had to do some paper work January 2 in Topeka.  He didn't have to leave until January 10.  

This deployment he would be deploying with the 731st medium truck company.  We didn't even know where they were out of when he left!  We knew from Kansas, but not exactly sure what part of Kansas.  That was hard because we knew no one from this unit.  His mission this time was convoy security.  He did end up having six other guys from the 2/137th go with him.  The Magnificent Seven.  

During this deployment, our communication was often few and far between.  He was out on missions a lot of the time.  Downtime was spent sleeping, working on trucks, waiting in phone lines, at the gym or at the range relieving stress.  Sometimes it was really hard, but I also had confidence in the Army.  I knew that if something happened to him I would be notified very quickly.  So, I really didn't worry too much.  It also made the time we did get more special.  I learned what to tell him about and what could wait until he came home. (I kept a journal of things so that I wouldn't forget important things that I didn't tell him at the time they were happening.)   I knew that if something happened to him because he was worrying about something here, I would never forgive myself.  I also knew that there were some things that he needed to know about even if he might worry.  For example, our youngest son was hospitalized twice while he was deployed.  

This second Iraq deployment ended November 25, 2007, the day I met him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

 I learned a lot about myself during these deployments.  Probably more than I ever thought I would.  I learned even more about myself in the year since his injury.  That is one for another post that is able to stand all on it's own though.  

Even Now,