Getting back on feet now vet’s painful mission

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Getting back on feet now vet’s painful mission 
By Lona O’Connor

Pictured left, Will Rightsell, 31, a Navy Seabee from Boynton Beach, tries to regain his composure after a grueling therapy session for nerve damage in his left leg.

Will Rightsell is betting that his 10-month-old son, Isaac, will be walking before he does. Isaac is already pulling himself up on furniture and starting to balance on his legs.

Rightsell’s big challenge is walking 50 feet on crutches, which causes him to gasp and wince in pain.

On the other side of the physical therapy room, a veteran of another war, old enough to be Rightsell’s grandfather, is shuffling across the room on a walker at about the same speed.

The real war begins after the injury, Rightsell and his family have discovered.

Wounded in May in Iraq, Rightsell, 31, a Navy Seabee, is in the midst of physical therapy, a slow and frustrating process. Success is measured in barely perceptible movements of his foot.

Rightsell and his wife, Tanya, are finding out just how complicated recovery can be and all the unexpected consequences it brings to family life and finances.

     

“You know you make a sacrifice when your spouse goes away to war,” said Tanya Rightsell, 27. “But you don’t think he’s going to come back wounded. We’ve had to revamp our whole life.”

It will be 18 months before doctors know whether a recent nerve graft will help him walk again. No one can even hazard a guess on how long it will take Rightsell to get his life back. Walking, driving, earning a living what most people don’t even think twice about are out of reach.

“I just want to be on my own two feet again, being the provider of my house again,” he said.

Lost friend in attack

Among the blessings Rightsell can count is that he survived. On May 2, he was wounded by shrapnel in his left leg during an attack on a Marine camp near Ramadi. Six men, all from Florida, were killed in the same attack, including Rightsell’s friend, Scott McHugh, 33, of Boynton Beach, and Robert Jenkins, 35, of Martin County. An additional 34 were injured that day.

More Florida troops were killed on May 2 than on any other day since the Iraq war began.

After two weeks of treatment in Iraq, Maryland, Jacksonville and Tampa, he was sent home to Boynton Beach. For the first six weeks, Rightsell traveled to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Riviera Beach in an ambulance. Tanya took time off from her job as a medical biller to accompany him. He continues with physical therapy three times a week.

Rightsell’s left calf is half as bulky as his right; nerve damage causes muscles to wither. He lost hearing in his right ear, has nightmares and memory loss, forgets words and “spaces out” when he gets tired. He has developed arthritis, possibly from the blast. The pain in his legs and the nightmares make it difficult to sleep.

Last month, in a risky surgery that lasted nearly 12 hours, a University of Miami doctor grafted nerves from Rightsell’s right calf into his left thigh. Now he has two new long, curved scars to go with the jagged shrapnel scar on his thigh.

The shrapnel damaged his sciatic nerve, the largest one in the human body. He paid for the graft with the loss of feeling in parts of his right leg. The payoff, surgeons hope, is that the graft will generate new nerve tissue, restore feeling and diminish his pain.

A metal-and-plastic leg brace helps him move his left ankle, which does not yet work on its own. He may need the brace for the rest of his life.

He has numb areas in both legs. Because nerve injuries are mysterious and ungovernable, he also gets unpredictable shooting pains in other parts of his legs.

He had some early pain relief from acupuncture administered by a VA doctor but has had to discontinue that as he recovers from the nerve graft.

Painkillers barely take the edge off what he describes as the pins-and-needles feeling of a leg that falls asleep only a thousand times worse. “He’s really tough,” Tanya said. “He had to learn how to deal with the pain. But some days he can’t do it.”

At the veterans hospital, he joins a steady stream of comrades from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf war, walking or wheeling into the looming flesh-pink hospital for treatment. A plaque tells their story: “The price of freedom is visible here.”

To drive a car again is high on his list of goals, along with supporting his family and buying a house.

With assistance from VA staff, he has filled out the application for medical permission to drive, one of the many steps on the road to normalcy. He also is seeking veterans assistance to buy a house and fit it with disabled access.

A powerlifter before he went to Iraq, Rightsell is still strong, but now he uses his arms to lift his own body in and out of wheelchairs.

He leans on the crutches, making his way, step by step, across the rehab room, then rests in the wheelchair before making the return trip. After an hour and a half of therapeutic pain, he sinks back into the wheelchair. His face is drained and tired.

Not all the pain is physical, though.

Before Rightsell went to Iraq last year, he had a contracting business. Now his tools sit in storage. His savings, which he hoped would make a down payment on a house, have been shrunk by the expenses of the past eight months.

He continues to receive his $700-a-week Navy salary until his enlistment is up Feb. 28. After that, Navy doctors will determine his percentage of disability and therefore the amount of his disability pay.

The Rightsells are considering moving north, where buying a house might be easier. “We’re barely making it,” Rightsell said. “My pay is not for Palm Beach County.”

The Rightsells worry about Miranda, 7, and William, 4. Isaac, who was born while Rightsell was in Iraq, has no bad memories or fears like his brother and sister.

Rightsell frets that his wife is carrying too much.

“I get on her nerves, I know I do. She goes to her job, then she comes home to this,” he said, gesturing to himself in a wheelchair. “She has no time for herself.”

Devastating diagnosis

Tanya feels inadequate to help her husband as he struggles with his memories of the blast and the loss of his friend, Scott McHugh.

“He’s not ready to deal with it, but it’s starting to catch up with him. Every time he talks about Scott or something reminds him, he gets really choked up. But he doesn’t talk about it. I don’t want to push. When he’s ready, he will. But it’s hard for me to understand and help him with that.”

The Rightsells didn’t realize the full extent of the injury when he came home. It took a frank conversation with a doctor a month later for the full meaning of nerve damage to sink in.

“Our expectations were so high, it devastated the both of us,” Tanya said. “Will said, ‘I don’t understand how they can transplant hearts but they can’t fix my legs.’ We had no idea it could be a lifelong injury.”

The night Tanya got the news that her husband had a serious injury, she called another reservist’s wife, a woman she had just met when the Seabees, the Navy’s engineering corps, shipped out for Iraq. The woman, Sandy Fox, came over immediately, at 3 in the morning. They talked until daylight. They have been close friends ever since.

The Rightsells’ pastor prayed with her about whether Rightsell should undertake the risky graft surgery, which surgeons told them might not accomplish anything or might cause further nerve damage or infection.

“He came out of the surgery with a whole new attitude toward his injury,” Tanya said. “He’s been working super hard. Even if nothing improves physically, he has hope now. The mind is a powerful thing.”

At Christmas, the city of Lake Worth sent a Santa Claus laden with presents, groceries and gift certificates. Rightsell’s battalion sent boxes of toys and books for all three kids. Tanya cried when she saw the boxes. Her colleagues at work sent her $400 they collected.

With her friend Sandy Fox, Tanya recently attended a women’s conference. The conference theme, courage, made her chuckle. She has her own definition of courage: “You’re on fast-forward all the time. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. You just gotta do it.”

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