In the afternoon of that first visit we traveled over to Bethesda Naval Hospital (remember at the time Walter Reed and Bethesda were separate facilities) to visit with those who had suffered head injuries-a most difficult visit to be sure. Amputations are one thing but there is so much that has been done for amputees, legs better than arms, but most can live a life that is meaningful. Head injuries are completely different and something that many never fully recover from or take years to get to an independent stage.
We were divided into two groups that day to visit various service member rooms. All had a traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Group #1 had gone into a patient room where there was a severely injured young man with a Traumatic Brain Injury among other injuries. I was in Group #2,thank goodness. Group #1 had to wear surgical gowns, masks and gloves because of the risk of infection. I waited outside the room with my group but could see that this young man and his family were in distress. You see he had just been flown in from Iraq and they thought he had the flesh-eating disease. They thought they were going to have to amputate both legs (and he had been a hockey player). And he had severe head injury that required brain surgery. He was touch and go.
He refused to wear the green padded helmet he had to wear after brain surgery and his father was extremely upset. The father came out of the room crying and was pleading with doctors to make his son wear the helmet. The University of New Hampshire’s President who was in Group #1 came out and asked me if we had a hockey helmet that we could send to this young man. I said sure. Because he had been a hockey player there was a chance we would wear it. We had no idea who this young man was. His name was not made available to us for privacy reasons so I wasn’t sure who I was sending a helmet to but knew I could send it to my contact at the Hospital.
When I returned to UNH I asked Head Hockey Coach, Dick Umile, if I could send one of his player helmets to this injured young man. He was honored to help and took the helmet of James vanRiemsdyk, who had just turned Pro, had the team sign it and gave it back to me so I could send it.
I sent it but knew I wouldn’t hear anything back but as you can imagine we all worried about everyone we saw that day but particularly this one young man.
Lo and behold 9 months later I received a postcard with a photo of a very pretty young woman and an equally good looking young man on the front. It was Shane, our head injured patient and his fiancée, Jackie. She was writing to thank us for giving Shane the hockey helmet. She went on to say that doctors got rid of the flesh-eating disease, after over 20 surgeries they did not have to amputate his legs but that the head injury had been the most severe injury, from which he was still recovering. She was writing the note because he was still unable to himself and she told me that they would get married that spring/summer (I sent them UNH sweatshirts as a wedding gift). She went on to say he wore the UNH hockey helmet every day and had made all the difference in his recovery. You see he thought he played hockey for UNH.
Our group will NEVER forget that day. It was one of the most impactful one we will ever experience. And our very tight-knit group understood whatever OUR problems were they were mild in comparison. AND we knew more than ever before that we would commit ourselves and OHT to helping those who have showed such strength of spirit and dedication to country.
I invite you to support Operation Hat Trick with a purchase or donation at www.operationhattrick.org. Help us fill critical gaps in care for our wounded and recovering service members and veterans.
Operation Hat Trick
The Founder’s Blog is a regular feature on the Operation Hat trick website. This blog will give you information and recount stories of our journey to help those in need. To read our most recent blog and find archived blog posts, please visit our “Founder’s Blog” page.