On to the Next Challenge
When I last wrote to you, it was July 2015, and I was in the midst of my pre-med studies at The University of Maryland. I stopped writing updates because, in a good way, my life had settled into a normal every day routine. There were no major surgeries. No major setbacks. No major milestones to announce. Unless you wanted to hear about the topics covered in say, my biochemistry or calculus classes, my life simply wasn’t interesting enough to write about. But today I find myself looking back, and I realize that quite a bit has changed over the past year. While some of the news is bad, this update is dominated by positive life changes. I’ve broken this update into three categories: School; Personal Life; and Health. So, what happened since 2015?
After my July 2015 update, I continued working on my pre-med classes, finishing in May 2016. In total, I took 18 courses over two years, and academically performed better than I had during any other period of my life. I also spent six months (January 2016 – June 2016) studying for the Medical College Assessment Test (MCAT), and sat for the seven-hour exam in June 2016. Having earned the score I needed, I spent the following two months submitting my applications to 19 medical schools throughout the East Coast.
That might seem like a lot of schools, but I believe the average med school applicant applies to around 15 schools! I had no clue how my applications would be received by admissions offices, but luckily, I started receiving invitations to interview at schools starting in September 2016.
In the end, I received multiple acceptances, but could only choose one school to attend. I am happy to announce that I was accepted by, and have started classes at Harvard Medical School! I am writing to you from the medical student dormitory (Vanderbilt Hall) here in Boston, MA. It is tough to explain just how thrilled I was to simply be invited to interview at Harvard, let alone be accepted. Mostly, it came as an immense relief to know that my hard work in pre-med and MCAT preparation paid off; and it reminded me just how grateful I am to have survived my injuries, and still have talents to share with the world.
I moved to Boston at the end of July, and will be here for at least the next four years while I trek through medical school. If you (like every other person I speak to) are wondering what type of doctor I want be, my answer is: A good one. As for the specialty I’d like to pursue, the overwhelming advice from others has been to keep my mind open to all the different fields of medicine, and that is my plan for now. While I’ve overcome some pretty harrowing life challenges, medical school is going to be an entirely different struggle, so please wish me luck! Then again, I recognize that this is a wonderful challenge to have, and I am happy and eager to take it on!
After medically retiring from the Army in March 2015, I stayed in the Washington DC metro area while I worked toward medical school. Through multiple relocations, I managed to dodge steep raises in rent, and moved from Chevy Chase, MD (2013-2015), to Silver Spring, MD (2015-2016), to Vienna, VA (2016-2017), and finally Fairfax, VA (May – July 2017). Through all these moves, I have been accompanied by my amazing girlfriend and roommate, Jazmine. We met in school during the Fall 2013 semester, and have been dating for over three years. In March of this year, I asked her to marry me, and she said, “Yes!” We are happily engaged, and planning a wedding for next year. Most likely during the two-week break I have between the first and second years of med school.
Some other good news is that I have been playing my guitar quite a bit since my last update. When I wrote in July 2015, I was still relearning how to play, since my injury shattered my right arm. Through the first two years following my injury, I was convinced that I’d never play again. Boy was I wrong. Not only did I find out that I can still play, but I’m a far better guitarist today than I was prior to my injury! Not only that, but I’ve had the opportunity to do some awesome performances. Through my involvement with the nonprofit, Musicorps, I have had the pleasure of playing/ performing with Roger Waters (Pink Floyd), Tom Morello (Audioslave, Rage Against the Machine), Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Sheryl Crow, and many other amazing musicians and talented veterans. After playing a benefit concert with Roger Waters and the other members of Musicorps in October 2015, I was invited by Roger to join him on a short tour in Fall 2016. The timing worked out that my medical school applications were submitted, and my calendar was free. In September/ October last year, I got a small taste of what it was like to be a rock star, when I toured with Roger Waters through three shows in Mexico City, and two performances at the Desert Trip festival in California. The smallest show we did was in front of 65 Thousand fans at a stadium in Mexico City. However, the largest performance we did, was a free show for the people of Mexico City. The crowd in Zocalo Square was estimated at 300K people! I’ve added a photo with me in front of the crowd at that show, but note that the photo was taken at sound check… eight hours before the show started.
In addition to the amazing gigs I played with Roger Waters, I’ve been fortunate to do several other fun performances in places like San Diego, Nashville, and Nantucket. Unfortunately, I don’t know how much free time I’ll have in medical school to be performance ready, but I hope I can keep playing. After all, I’ll need to take an occasional study break!
One other neat thing I did this year introduced me to an “adaptive sport” that I really enjoyed. In March this year, I spent a week in Vail, CO courtesy of the Vail Veterans Program. They provided all the equipment and one-on-one instruction I needed to mono-ski. You can look it up, but it’s basically a ski with a seat attached to it, in which I am strapped down. With the use of two modified ski poles as outriggers, and shifting my bodyweight, I quickly learned how ski… again. For those of you who don’t know, I used to ski and snowboard regularly, especially when I was stationed in Colorado for the military from 2008-2010. While I thought I’d never ski again after my injury, the Vail Veterans Program proved me wrong. And when I say that I skied, I mean I was CRUISING down the slopes! But like many other activities I’ve come to enjoy, I don’t know how much I’ll be able to mono-ski once med school is in full swing. Nonetheless, I am so happy that I gave it a try, as I have now found a sport I can do and thoroughly enjoy.
Compared to my disheartening entries in 2011 and 2012, the past two years seem quite tame in regards to my physical health. On the positive side, I have had no infections since early 2014, and I have spent very little time in the hospital. The pain still comes and goes, but it is far less frequent than the early days following the injury. With the pain reduced, my use of medications has plummeted, and my ability to fall/ stay asleep has significantly improved. I still have bad days and nights from time to time, but since I don’t use as much pain or sleep medications as I used to, they work like a charm when I need them.
Unfortunately, I’m still a long way from my pre-injury fitness level and physical well-being. Having put most of my time and energy into school, I have done virtually no walking on my prosthetic limbs in the past three years. At this point, I essentially need to start from scratch if I ever want to walk again. I estimate it will take more than three months, spending a few hours every day in physical therapy to rebuild the strength, balance, and pain tolerance required to use my prosthetic legs effectively. I had intended to start training on the prostheses before school started, but I unfortunately suffered a bad compression fracture of two vertebrae following a nasty fall earlier this year. Although my broken back hurt a lot (and believe me, I know pain), I luckily had no damage to my nerves, and did not need surgery. I did however need to be in a full torso support brace for eight weeks, and by the time I was out of the brace and the pain subsided, I was forced to abandon my plans of walking before medical school. While I will try to incorporate physical therapy into my future schedule, the reality is that medical school is going to be so time consuming, that any real progress toward walking again won’t happen for a few years.
And while I have been comfortable and independent using my wheelchair for the past few years, the lack of stress on my bones (from walking) has resulted in extremely low bone density in my hips and back (hence, the broken back after falling). This makes me more prone to fractures in the future, and can cause additional pain as the strength of my bones deteriorates. I’ll be working with my doctors to find alternative ways to rebuild my bone density without the ability to do many weight-bearing exercises. For now, I’m on some hardcore doses of Vitamin D and calcium to hopefully replenish some of what has been lost.
One other health note to add, regards the little finger (aka: pinkie) on my right hand. The explosion that wounded me resulted in, among other things, my ulnar nerve being completely severed at the elbow. Without going into the details of the ulnar nerve, the big take away is that it was responsible for most of the sensation and movement of the little finger. Without it working, no nerve signals could be sent between my finger and my brain. After a few failed attempts to repair the nerve, I found myself with a finger that I could neither feel nor move. It was just there. Even worse, it made challenges out of normal tasks like putting on gloves, or shaking hands. It would get caught on doorways or on my wheelchair, get cut, and bleed without me noticing. It would inadvertently snag or muffle guitar strings while I was playing, and overall was just a huge nuisance to me. So, in September 2016, I opted to have part of the little finger amputated. After having lost both legs above the knee, getting rid of a non-functional finger was a piece of cake. I am extremely happy with the results, and feel relieved to be free of that annoying problem.
On to the Next Challenge…
Overall, despite having some significant room to improve my health, I feel great! My body, mind, and spirit have come a long, long way from where I was some six years ago. My morale is high and my outlook is positive as I enter this next chapter of my life. I know that the future will have more challenges for me to face, but for now, it feels amazing to have the positives in my life triumphing over the pain and despair. As I stated in my last posting, I’m not sure when I’ll add another update to this website. But please know that I am forever grateful to you, and every individual who helped to heal and motivate me to get where I am today. From Harvard Medical School, with a smile on my face, I say Thank You for all you have done for me.