Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center
by Adele Levine
The official blurb:
In her six years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Adele Levine rehabilitated soldiers admitted in worse and worse shape. As body armor and advanced trauma care helped save the lives—if not the limbs—of American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, Walter Reed quickly became the world leader in amputee rehabilitation. But no matter the injury, physical therapy began the moment the soldiers emerged from surgery.
Days at Walter Reed were intense, chaotic, consuming, and heartbreaking, but they were also filled with camaraderie and humor. Working in a glassed-in fishbowl gymnasium, Levine, her colleagues, and their combat-injured patients were on display at every moment to tour groups, politicians, and celebrities. Some would shudder openly at the sight—but inside the glass and out of earshot, the PTs and the patients cracked jokes, played pranks, and compared stumps.
With dazzling storytelling, Run, Don’t Walk introduces a motley array of oddball characters including: Jim, a retired lieutenant-colonel who stays up late at night baking cake after cake, and the militant dietitian who is always after him; a surgeon who only speaks in farm analogies; a therapy dog gone rogue; —and Levine’s toughest patient, the wild, defiant Cosmo, who comes in with one leg amputated and his other leg shattered.
Entertaining, engrossing, and ultimately inspiring, Run, Don’t Walk is a fascinating look into a hidden world.
I liked this a lot more than I expected to. I feel like I’ve said that about a lot of books lately.
This book isn’t about physical therapy. It isn’t about politics. It isn’t about regrets. It’s a wonderful blend of humorous essays and memoir with more heart and truth than the average person will collect in a lifetime. Adele Levine gives us a look at her life as a physical therapist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center at the height of injuries coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
There’s not a lot of medical speak, no PT jargon, or tons of language pulled out of an old anatomy textbook. There are characters in this book – not the fictional, made up, over the top characters – but 100% human folks who are characters in and of themselves. We meet Elijah, a former football player who can talk any wounded soldier into going to PT with a kind word or just by taking up the entire doorframe with his massive body, intimidating them into action without realizing his effect. We meet Jim, the office foodie and baker who tries out new recipes (almost always successful) on his coworkers, bakes cakes for individual patients birthdays, and regularly takes his injured soldiers out to eat at new local restaurants. We meet Cosmo, a tough talking above-knee amputee whose favorite word is ‘fuck’ and favorite hobby is skipping therapy for a smoke in the smoking tent. We meet Tim Gunn (yes, that Tim Gunn), one of the only celebrities to come without press and fanfare to meet a female soldier that had a prosthetic leg made with a stiletto heel and took her shopping. (This is a really really small mention in the book but made me love Gunn even more.) The list goes on and each person seems as fascinating as the last. I think it takes exceptional people to do what these therapists do, dealing with the true cost of war – not dollars and cents, but legs, arms, and lives lost – and that is part of the reason there are so many characters that you want to befriend. These people seem exceptional because they are exceptional. Levine keeps the tone conversational throughout the book and her respect and admiration for those around her comes through. She’s not patting herself or her coworkers on the back. There’s no “look at what we do! Aren’t we grand?” If anything, it’s the opposite with a little downplaying of their impact and importance. Levine points out regularly that they are but one part of the puzzle but no puzzle can ever be truly completed without all the pieces.
They’re not working out sprained ankles and trying to get full range of motion back to an injured knee. Levine and her cohorts work only with patients with amputated limbs, teaching them how to build their strength in the right ways, making sure they relearn proper balancing techniques now that they have no legs, starting them out on low “stubbies” prosthetic legs, making sure their patients are prepared and able to move into their full size new legs. They learn to read their patients along the way, knowing when to press them harder and when to ease off a bit and give a bit of leeway. Levine shows us it’s not only the physical injuries dealt with in the amputee clinic but the mental ones as well. Whether that’s helping them move through the mental hurdles of a life with a prosthesis or understanding the needs of soldiers with brain injuries who need her to repeat each step each time and have the same conversation every single day – word for word – while his brain heals itself.
Levine touches on her personal life a bit here and there, covering moving from single life into a new relationship, her job affecting every aspect of her life, a forced week off when she decided to rehab her entire condo in a matter of days, and being unable to enjoy the sites of a real vacation because she was too busy cataloging injuries and prosthesis she saw. She never asks for accolades or pity, instead she lays all the cards on the table with a touch of humor and a lot of heart, much like the soldiers she helps treat.
At the end of the day, our work people – be it coworkers or regular customers or patients or or or… – become a weird little extended family. We often spend more time with coworkers than our immediate families. We learn habits, preferences, annoyances, weaknesses and strengths. We learn what jokes to make to break a bad mood and when the time is right for that joke. We learn watch shows they watched the night before and don’t have to say anything more than “Did you watch it?” to kick off the morning round of conversations while we wait for the coffee to kick in. We have disagreements over nothing important and inside jokes over the silliest stuff. We grow relationships and can have an entire conversation with a single shared look and not a word spoken. We send flowers after lost loved ones, books after surgeries, and links to youtube videos just because. We learn when their silence is actually begging for a friend and when their silence is a wall that they’re not ready to have you break down just yet. We become family with those people. Day in and day out. Side by side. Battle after battle.
This peek into their lives was a fascinating read and a great reminder that our battles, while tough, are so little compared to what some folks fight. But all those fights, big or small, are a little easier with family by your side. The folks at Walter Reed were no different. Physical therapist or patient. Military or civilian. Army or Marine. They became a family, lifting each other up – literally and metaphorically – when they fell down. And that’s what family is supposed to do.