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A soldier's story

The long road to recovery

January 25, 2013
By SCOTT VIAU - DMG writer (sviau@mininggazette.com) , The Daily Mining Gazette

Editor's note: This article is the last in a three-part series detailing the enlistment, injury and rehabilitation of 1433rd Michigan Army National Guard Combat Engineer Specialist Steven Nelson of Calumet.

CALUMET - "I was unconscious for about six or seven days after I got blown up," Spc. Steven Nelson said in a recent interview during a visit to the Copper Country.

Nelson, of Calumet, was seriously injured Aug. 1, 2012, while on duty in Afghanistan.

Article Photos

Photo Courtesy Sandra Nelson
The hands of Steven and Sandra Nelson are shown interlocked. Sandra stood by Steven throughout his injury and rehabilitation, which Steven is still going through at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Steven and Sandra were married in March 2012, just months before Steven was injured in Afghanistan.

He remembers the medevac helicopter arriving and him being placed on it. He also remembers an attempt at getting a piece of shrapnel out of his knee, which he said "really hurt."

He also remembers landing and being asked if he knew where he was, but the rest is a blur to him. When he woke up again, Nelson was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

He also remembers the vivid hallucinations he had, which can more than likely be attributed to pain medication. One hallucination involved being dragged behind a fanboat in the bayou.

He would go in and out of consciousness, but remembers nurses being in his room and everyone at Walter Reed being incredibly friendly and helpful.

Sandra Nelson, Steven's wife, remembers she was grocery shopping when she received the call Steven had been injured. She was there with Steven's brother, Drew.

"His parents' house is about 20 minutes away," Sandra said. "I don't think I would have been able to drive myself there.

Sandra remembers "freaking out." She was told Steven was alive but was on life support. She remembers being frustrated by all the medical terminology.

"They're just spouting (the medical terms) off," Sandra said. "It was a waiting game for a while. I think I was crying on and off for about two days."

Before arriving at Walter Reed, Steven was taken to Germany, where he was on life support and it was uncertain whether he could be moved to the United States.

Unsure of whether her husband would be returning to his home country, Sandra began the process of obtaining a passport. However, it would not be needed as Steven regained consciousness and his ability to function without life support.

It was while Steven was in Germany Sandra first heard his voice over the telephone.

"He didn't sound like himself at all. He sounded like a robot," Sandra said. "He had a tube taken out of his throat so his throat was raw."

Steven, however, does not remember this.

The first two times Sandra spoke to Steven on the phone, Steven sounded the same - groggy and unlike himself.

It wasn't until the third time, while Steven was still recovering in Germany that Sandra began to hear the Steven she had fallen in love with and married in March 2012.

She saw him again when he was moved to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"Everything came off my shoulders when I got to see him," Sandra said. "I expected myself to start bawling or gasp (at his condition) and I really didn't want to have that reaction. But I walked in and I saw him and I recognized him and he was cracking jokes."

Once Steven was at Walter Reed, it was time for his rehabilitation to begin.

He underwent occupational, physical and recreational therapies, as well as scar massage and countless surgeries.

"(They) make sure I'm not only recovering physically, but mentally, emotionally and socially," Steven said. "There are so many things they encourage you to do."

He was unable to move his left leg, although he could move his right freely. Both of his arms were in casts and he couldn't move his fingers on either hand.

At Walter Reed, he has been receiving help for all of that.

A nerve graft will restore some sensation in him arm and fingers and, in turn, restore some muscle there.

"(My left arm) will never be as strong as it used to be because I'm missing muscles," he said. "I'm missing half my bicep."

Steven cannot stress enough the good things he has to say about everyone at Walter Reed. Sandra's visit to the hospital to see him was fully paid for. And when Steven's rehabilitation is complete, the couple will have no medical bills to worry about.

Although his injuries were serious and life-threatening, he maintains a good attitude.

"I don't feel sorry for myself," he said. "I don't feel sorry for any of those guys at Walter Reed, either. (We all) knew what we were getting into."

Nelson, who returned to Walter Reed Jan. 18, is now in outpatient care, which means he is no longer a resident of the hospital, but instead lives in a two-bedroom hospital-owned apartment.

His discharge date has not been determined.

Nelson said he feels lucky to not be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can plague soldiers after their return to civilian life.

"I don't know if it's because I can deal with my problems or because I have a good sense of humor," Steven said. "I do, however, have a little bit of Traumatic Brain Injury."

TBI can result from a concussion because of an explosion.

According to Sandra, it's impossible to walk 10 feet at Walter Reed without seeing someone with one or more limbs missing.

Most of the guys who are missing limbs took a 5- or 10-pound blast, Steven said, significantly less than the blast he encountered.

"I don't complain. I'm not bitter about it," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm the luckiest guy at Walter Reed."

 
 

 

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