Sunday | July 20, 2003
The men of Ward 57
By Steve Gilliard
More than 650 seriously wounded soldiers have passed through Walter Reed Hospital since March
Garth Stewart was curled in a miserable ball of blue pajamas.
First Lt. John Fernandez, the West Point graduate, was beginning married life from a wheelchair.
Pfc. Danny Roberts was wishing for Faulkner instead of a glossy guide about adapting to limb loss.
Their war was not yet over.
Walter Reed has been treating wounded soldiers since the beginning of the century, expanding and contracting with the rhythms of war. During World War I, the number of patient beds grew from 80 to 2,500 in a matter of months. Three generations later, the soldiers from Operation Iraqi Freedom arrive, some so fresh from the battlefield they still have dirt and blood beneath their fingernails.
In Room 5714, Garth Stewart is sleeping when three doctors arrive. One of them reaches for a light switch, and before Garth can shield his eyes, his room is flash-blasted in white.
"Can we take a look at the leg?"
Garth flips back the bedsheet. His desert tan has gone sallow. His GI buzz cut is a woolly disgrace. Even in this condition, he wishes for a decent soldier's haircut. The drugs have made his stomach cramp so much that he stays curled on his side. Now, with the doctors hovering, he tries to straighten out his 6-foot-4 frame. His amputated leg won't lie down. It trembles in midair.
A doctor works quickly, unwrapping the bandage and then the white gauze. Garth watches as they probe the black caterpillar of sutures on his bulbous stump. He moans. The stump begins to shake violently. "I'm gonna get sick," he says.
"You want your bucket?"
Garth reaches for the container. "I can't do this much longer," he says, holding his hand over his eyes.
"We're almost finished," the doctor tells him.
"No," Garth says, "not that, everything. I can't take it any more."
Of all the specialists who puzzle over Garth Stewart, of all the expensive drugs dripping into his veins, nothing brings relief. The stomach cramps and constipation persist. Instead of getting better, he's getting worse. And then his magic bullet arrives.
The remedy comes from an unlikely deliverer known as the Milkshake Man. Jim Mayer is a veteran who lost both legs in Vietnam. Several times a week, he brings McDonald's milkshakes to the amputees on Ward 57. The visits are just an excuse to talk and counsel. Mayer arrives this Saturday afternoon but Garth refuses the shake. Too rich. Any chance of a Mountain Dew, he asks. Mayer heads downstairs to the commissary.Posted July 20, 2003 05:20 AM