Recovery from catastrophic injury takes time – and patience.
For Recon Marine and two-time Paralympic handcycling gold medalist Oscar “Oz” Sanchez — known by some as the “fastest cyclist on two hands” — recovering from a spinal injury meant accepting his paralysis and refocusing his energy on a new passion. It was about recognizing a new reality and learning how to apply a positive mental attitude to a new sport, which took time.
For others – like retired Marine Capt. Derek Liu and Australian Defence Force Signaler Gary Wilson – who are each working to overcome severe brain injuries, recovery means reminding the brain how to walk, talk, read and write. It’s relearning the old and then learning something new, which takes patience.
I met these three athletes at the Marine Corps Trials, an international Paralympic competition held by the Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and sponsored by USO San Diego. The trials are held annually to select the Corps’ best wounded, ill and injured athletes to compete against its sister services at the annual Warrior Games in Colorado.
All Paths are Not Paved
With victory in his eyes and pride on his chest, “Oz Sanchez” had a certain confidence about him at the trials. Maybe it was the London Paralympics gold swinging from his neck like he was keeping time. No one could avoid catching his contagious smile.
As I listened to his story, though, I learned he wasn’t always so optimistic. After two deployments with 1st Recon Battalion, Sanchez saw his dreams of serving in one of America’s most elite warfighting units — SEAL Team 6 — wash away.
He was in the middle of making the transition from the Marine Corps to the Navy SEALs when a hit-and-run motorcycle accident left him with a severe spinal injury. A wave of depression came over him. He initially drowned his sorrows in alcohol and painkillers. It wasn’t until two years after his injury that he pulled himself out of depression and onto a handcycle.
The transition to a handcycle was challenging, but he knew recovery meant meeting challenges head on, pushing through and setting bigger goals for himself.
After winning all the local races in Southern California, he competed at the nationals in Colorado, where he was introduced to the Paralympics team.
Only five years after learning to ride a hand cycle, Sanchez won his first Paralympics gold medal in Beijing in 2008.
“Things are only as bad as you allow them to get,” he said. “Sure, you’re dealing with the inherent truth of whatever your physical state is, but that’s just your body that’s broken — not your mind.”
TBI, ABI and PMA
For Liu and Wilson — who’ve both made great strides in the year after I first met them at the 2012 Marine Corps Trials — the same concept holds true.
In 2007, Liu suffered cardiac arrest while jogging at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Wilson was involved in a Blackhawk helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2011. Both incurred brain injuries and were in comas for nearly two months after their respective accidents.
Most head injuries today are categorized as traumatic brain injuries (TBI), which is a broad category that always involves trauma to the brain, but can also indicate damage to structures other than the brain, such as the scalp and skull. Liu and Wilson were affected by anoxic brain injury (ABI), which is when the brain is damaged by lack of oxygen. A 2005 study demonstrated the cognitive and emotional injuries that result from both ABI and TBI are — in fact — one and the same, and the severity depends on the volume of grey matter physically compromised.
For Wilson and Liu, the damage was as severe as it gets.
“I’m no longer the person I once was and cannot do the things I did before,” Liu said. “My memory is still not trustworthy, I get confused easily, and my vision is poor.
“I’ve had to find out who the new Derek is.”
Physical Fitness is Key
For Sanchez, Liu and Wilson physical fitness plays a key role in their ability to maintain a healthy mindset.
“One of the things I missed the most, and what had me in such a doom-and-gloom state, was not being able to work out,” Sanchez said. “Once I started to get active again, I started to get some healthy thoughts back, and that effect snowballed into success. What was once me feeling like I was a product of the situation turned into me being in control of the situation.”
According to Dr. Mark Bates, Associate Director of Population Health at the Deployment Health Clinical Center, physical health and mental resiliency are closely related.
“Some of the things one can do to build psychological resilience aren’t necessarily psychological, and research suggests a strong relationship between being physically fit and mentally fit,” Bates wrote in an email. “Regular exercise increases energy, improves cognitive abilities and can help prevent or treat depression.”
Mental Health and Adaptive Sports
“Running and swimming were passions of mine,” Liu said. “So gaining back the physical strength enough to do them has boosted my confidence, and that lets me know that there is so much more I can do and achieve.”
Wilson plans to become a psychologist so he can look after people who have been through similar situations.
“I’ve been seeing a psychologist for almost two years now,” he said, “and it’s helped me heal a great deal better.
“There’s no judgment. Having someone who is genuinely interested in your progression and helping you deal with the issues that come along has been invaluable to me.”
Sanchez is exemplifying his own motto: “Know no limits.”
“It’s a long road to recovery, and it’s not always paved,” he told a group of handcyclists at the trials. “How will you get there? That’s the most difficult part, and it’s up to you. But believe me, you will get there.”
Liu builds his confidence with each new skill he masters. So far, nothing has been “like riding a bike.”
“When one is initially injured like I was, the gravity of the situation doesn’t hit you right away, but it will in five or 10 years,” Liu said. “Down the line you begin to see the outcome of your hard work and start to realize why you pushed on. The prognosis may not get better, but your adaptation to your injury and outlook on life will get a lot better.”
–Story by Joseph A. Lee, USO Staff Writer