Decades ago, losing a limb might mean completely changing your lifestyle and surrendering your independence. But a gym deep in the bowels of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda is changing that. The training program has allowed hundreds of military amputees to return to full athletic form.
"Walter Reed is the capstone of military medicine, and the amputee center is the pinnacle of Walter Reed," says Capt. Erik Johnson, an occupational therapist.
Therapists here treat amputees like athletes. It's a philosophy that allows amputees to fulfill their personal goals, says Chuck Scoville, chief of the Amputee Patient Care Service.
"When we started taking care of wounded warriors, they came in wanting to return to active duty, to run, scuba dive, and do other activities," he says. "We had to meet their needs, so we developed a program to take them to that high level of activity they deserve."
With their doctors' permission, amputees begin by building up their core strength and regaining their sense of balance, he says. Large beds in the center of the room allow amputees to lie flat while doing upper-body crunches and weight training.
The center's specialists help fit amputees with prosthetics. That allowed them to move on to walking and even playing Frisbee or football.
"We do things you'd see a pro athlete do in a sports facility," says Scoville.
A sports therapist by training, the soft-spoken Scoville is somewhat of a national celebrity now. He recently was honored with a Service to America medal. For federal employees, it is the equivalent of the Oscars for Hollywood.
He estimates that the center has treated 1,500 amputees. Some recently competed in the Paralympics in London. Others have raced triathlons and hiked mountains. One in four return to active duty, but many just want to regain the independence they lost along with their limbs.
"I'm like a toddler again," says Staff Sgt. Christopher Ryan Walker, who lost both arms and a leg when an IED exploded in Afghanistan. "It's hard to ask people to do things for you."
But he won't complain when he goes to the gym, he says.
"You see the others doing it," he says. "There are people who have lost legs and they're in better shape now."
[Music: "We're Gonna Make It" by Mychael Danna from Little Miss Sunshine]