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Positive Attitude, Physical Therapy Turns Things Around for Amputees

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 4, 2007 – Working with Army Pfc. Randy Gollinger is, to say the least, challenging.

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Army Pfc. Randy Gollinger, right, and Army Sgt. Kevin Brown race down a row of colored cones during their physical therapy session at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Physical therapist Bunnie Wyckoff pulls against Gollinger with a rubber band to provide resistance. Defense Dept. photo by Fred W. Baker III
  

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When asked, his physical therapist, Bunnie Wyckoff, used the words “challenging” and “challenge” at least four times to describe her work with Gollinger.

“He’s challenging. He was very difficult to motivate in the beginning. He turned around like most of the guys do. He’s doing fine now. But he likes to challenge me all the way. I’m up for the challenge. I enjoy it,” she said.

“He’s a challenge,” she said again, and laughed.

“I’m a pain in the butt,” Gollinger corrected her, and then he laughed.

To be sure, if laughter is the best medicine, Gollinger, a military policeman injured by an explosive device while patrolling in Baghdad, is well on his way to a speedy recovery. An amputee who lost a leg and an eye, Gollinger is recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. He keeps Wyckoff on her toes and in stitches at the same time. The two go back and forth like kin, verbally poking and picking.

Wyckoff has been on staff at the center for more than three years and has personally worked with nearly half of the amputees who’ve received care there. She meets them bedside when they are first brought to the center and follows them through their care -- from being wheeled into the therapy room to, hopefully, walking out on their own.

“I love it here. I love to see the fact that people improve and they get back to living a life that’s meaningful to them,” Wyckoff said.

Wyckoff works with seven to 10 patients daily. Some are more independent and work through much of their therapy on their own, she said.

The physical therapy room is large, white and full of commotion. Low, padded tables cut through the center of the room providing areas for patients to lie, sit, exercise or rest. Amputees at various stages of therapy go about their recovery in a deliberate, although sometimes frustrating, fashion. Some work on upper body strength with familiar exercises like push ups; others practice walking; and some get help stretching from family members.

Exercise machines are stationed for walking and biking in the physical therapy room. Peer amputee visitors mingle and encourage, and there is even a therapy dog, Troy, who drops a tennis ball at the base of patients’ wheelchairs in hopes that it will get thrown and he will get to chase. Some do, some don’t, but eventually Troy finds someone who is willing to give the ball a fling across the room.

During this therapy session, Gollinger literally pulled Wyckoff around the outside of the main hospital building. Using a rubber band connected to a belt at Gollinger’s waist, Wyckoff held and resisted as Gollinger stepped around the building in a race against fellow amputee Army Sgt. Kevin Brown. Gollinger lost.

Using the same resistance, Gollinger followed up his loss with an indoor race against Brown, maneuvering down a row of colored cones, stopping to squat using his prosthetic leg and touching the cone with his other leg. This race he won, although Wyckoff jokingly accused him of cheating. Friendly competition keeps the therapy fun, Gollinger said.

But the exercises have purpose, each targeting specific areas and concentrating on particular elements of recovery.

The exercises in this session help with balance and confidence using the prosthetic leg, Wyckoff said.

“We want them to be able to control the knee prosthetic, while they are squatting down. They need to be able to learn to pick things up off the floor,” she said.

Gollinger has served in the Army for one and a half years, and he has spent nearly half of that time at Walter Reed. Therapy wasn’t always as fun for him as it is now.

“At first I was very bitter. I didn’t really care. Now it’s just kind of like my second home,” he said.

“Medically I died twice. I’m pretty thankful to be here today at all, let alone just missing an eye and a leg. You can’t really complain about that,” he said.

A year-round athlete in high school, Gollinger said he joined the Army to “get out and see the world.” He also hoped to get money for college and eventually play college sports.

The 20-year-old said he thought his life was over when he found out his leg was amputated. But therapy and a positive attitude turned it around for him. The New York state native said he plans to enroll in college there to become a teacher and hopes to eventually hit the athletic fields again.

“I went through a really hard time trying to adapt and find things that would interest me,” he said. “I figured my life was pretty much over with as far as stuff I liked to do, but I’ve been reassured that, depending on how good I get, I’ll be able to play softball.”

Gollinger said his therapy improved when his attitude improved. “As soon as I was mentally prepared … everything else just took off, and I’ve been going nowhere else but up,” he said.

“How bad do you want it? I want it bad now. Before, I didn’t want it bad at all. Riding a wheel chair, I figured, would be my first means of transportation,” Gollinger said. “The more I see everybody else I know getting up and walking, the more I realize that I don’t want to be in a wheelchair the rest of my life.”

Gollinger offered simple advice to those who follow in his footsteps at the center.

“Don’t wait for things to happen. Make them happen. Keep your head up. Others have been there. And we’re going to help,” he said.

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Related Sites:
Audio Report: Physical Therapy Turns Things Around for Amputees
Special Report: Defense Leaders Make Wounded Warrior Care Top Priority
Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Pfc. Randy Gollinger and Army Sgt. Kevin Brown race during their physical therapy session at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Defense Dept. photo by Fred W. Baker III  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageJoshua Davis, left, a physical therapy intern at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and Army Pfc. Randy Gollinger throw a basketball back and forth while walking sideways. The drill helps Gollinger learn to balance and move on his prosthetic leg, building his confidence in the device. Defense Dept. photo by Fred W. Baker III  
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