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Once the pain of surgery had subsided after Christmas, I began to suffer the bane of amputees: phantom limb pain. Sometimes I felt as if my fist was clamping tighter and tighter until my fingers were ready to explode. At other times, the Phantom could create the sensation of twisted fingers or a bent thumb.
Virtually everyone on Ward 57 had some phantom limb pain. Its cause remained as mysterious as it had been when a Civil War doctor coined the term to identify the complaints of soldiers whose injured limbs had been sawed off. Some experts believe the brain has a blueprint of body parts that persists even if they've been cut off. According to one theory, when the brain sends signals and receives no feedback, it bombards the missing limb with more signals. That aggravates the swollen nerves that once served it, inducing pain.
Doctors were as hard-pressed to treat phantom pain as they were to explain it. They resorted to trial and error, using remedies originally intended for other ailments that seemed to relieve nerve pain. I had a sampling on my nightstand: pills to combat seizures and depression, lozenges for bronchitis, allergy nasal spray, arthritis cream, medicated patches for shingles and an electro-stimulation device. It was hard to tell if any of them worked. The crushing, stabbing pain in my right hand flared and subsided--but never went away. Doctors said it might last a month, a year or a lifetime. Every amputee was different.
Phantom pain was a daily topic at OT--occupational therapy, the whittling porch for amputees. I made my first friends there. Most of my neighbors were half my age and from different backgrounds, small-town boys who had passed up college or blue-collar trades for a military life. I was urban, overeducated, untattooed and distrustful of uniforms and blind patriotism. But I soon discovered that I shared something with those soldiers larger than the differences in our biographies. We were men struggling for identity. The psychological scars of amputation ran deeper than those from conventional wounds of war. The blasts took away something deeply personal. None of us felt like the men who had gone to Iraq. We possessed the same minds; they just resided in different bodies.
The loss of my writing hand launched an assault on my self-image. If I couldn't be a reporter, then who was I? What would I do? The questions left me raw and wide open, no more so than my new friends who had honed their bodies for a completely different cause: war. The military represented the perfect synthesis of muscle and discovery, a place to play out feelings of invincibility. Now they confronted the world from a wheelchair or without an arm. Life looked different with no war to fight, orders to follow and comrades to love. The question was how to fill the void, and with what.
The tone in OT could shift from laughter to grave silence in the moment it took a soldier to scream in pain or explode into anger. Captain Katie segregated the angriest amputees. Her morning sessions bristled with tension. Metallica and Motorhead blared from speakers. One specialist who had trouble picking up a peg with his above-the-elbow prosthesis flung the $115,000 device against a wall. "I ain't doing it anymore," he shouted. Another threw the metal pedal of his wheelchair into a costly exercise machine.