Monday, May 26, 2008

Soldier struggles with brain injury caused by war

Shurvon Phillip, right, has been unable to speak and
has little ability to move since he received a brain injury
while serving in Iraq.

In honor of Memorial Day weekend, The New York Times magazine did an in-depth story on a soldier who returned from the war with a severe brain injury and a tenuous road to recovery.

The article focuses on the story of Sgt. Shurvon Phillip, who cannot speak and can barely move any part of his body due the brain injury he received from the explosion of anti-tank mine under his Humvee in Iraq.

The NY Times reports that "along with a broken jaw and a broken leg, Shurvon suffered one of the war’s signature wounds on the American side: Though no shrapnel entered his head, the blast rattled his brain profoundly.

"Far more effectively than in previous American wars, helmets and body armor are protecting the skulls and saving the lives of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, a joint Defense Department and V.A. organization, about 900 soldiers have come home with serious traumatic brain injury, or T.B.I., which essentially means dire harm to their brains; it can be caused by explosions that deliver blunt injury to the helmeted skull or that send waves of compressed air to slam and snap the head ruinously even at a distance of hundreds of yards from the blast."

According to several tests, Phillip's cognitive functioning is probably OK and he can read and comprehend material.

Ironically, after writing about this fact so hopefully, the article's author Daniel Bergner reveals his own biases about serious disabilities, saying that faced with Phillip's scenario, he might prefer to be dead.

"Sometimes impossible to overcome, too, was the idea that Shurvon’s life might not be worth living; that I, in his place, would rather stop breathing, cease thinking, that I would prefer to die," Bergner writes.

Bergner then problematizes this thoughts by telling of the wonderful life Phillip has with his loving family of his mother, Gail, sister, Candace, niece, Kyla and nephew, Malik.

"Whenever this idea took hold, I recalled a medical ethicist at R.I.C. (Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) telling me about studies showing that doctors and nurses tend to rate the quality of life of severely impaired patients to be far lower than the patients do themselves. The ethicist had spoken, then, about the ways that a life acquires meaning.

"And I thought about Malik scrambling onto Shurvon’s bed to show him pictures, and about Malik and Kyla curled and comforted on the floor below him. I thought, too, about a kind of exercise that Shurvon’s family discovered recently by chance and that Gail described: with Shurvon sitting in a wheelchair in the driveway, his nieces and nephews tossed inflatable beach balls, one pink and another blue, softly toward him, and he tried to move his arms to bat them back.

“'They were cheering like at a baseball game,' Gail said, remembering the first time the children did this. ‘Yeah! Go on Ya-Ya!’ Beach balls and high voices of excitement floated in the air around him."