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McRae makes progress in Va. rehab hospital

Posted: March 8, 2012 - 1:13am
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U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Howard McRae, 29, is shown in Afghanistan in 2005 in a photo provided by his family in Juneau. McRae completed three tours in Iraq and was in his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when he was injured by a roadside bomb in January of this year.  Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo
U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Howard McRae, 29, is shown in Afghanistan in 2005 in a photo provided by his family in Juneau. McRae completed three tours in Iraq and was in his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when he was injured by a roadside bomb in January of this year.

Physical therapy, kinesiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, psychological therapy.

Now that Sgt. Thomas McRae has successfully completed all of his surgeries after losing both his legs and his left arm and suffering a brain injury in a roadside blast in Afghanistan, his father says his son’s focus is now on therapy and rehabilitation.

“He has a fairly full day from probably 8 in the morning to about 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” father Timothy Ryan said in a phone interview Wednesday.

At the Richmond (Va.) Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center, where McRae was transferred about two weeks ago, it’s back to basics: re-learning and re-wiring your brain, Ryan said.

There’s physical therapy on a cushioned mat table for core body strength exercises to make sure muscles don’t atrophy. There’s speech and memory therapy, which works on basic short term memory and problem solving, and is sometimes as simple as saying three words, then some time later, asking him to repeat those three words.

“Those are the basic things he’s been acing all along,” Ryan said.

There’s occupational therapy, which works on dressing yourself, brushing your teeth and shaving. Kinesiotherapy helps with upper body strength and flexibility. And psychological therapy to help with emotional pain and trauma.

“He’s had some pretty rough times where he was obviously dealing with this new reality, but he’s doing really well,” Ryan said.

McRae can write his own signature now that pins have been taken out of his thumb, which had been broken. Now he can communicate better and is talking more, Ryan said. Before, he squeezed his hand, which was in a cast, for “yes” and wiggled it back and forth for “no.”

The Richmond Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center specializes in intensive rehabilitative care for veterans with severe injuries to more than one organ system, prosthetics and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

McRae, 29, a U.S. Marine Corps explosive ordnance disposal technician born and raised in Juneau, was wounded on Jan. 16 when he was investigating an explosive threat on a Marine base in the Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, and an improvised explosive device exploded under him.

He was treated abroad, then sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he had brain surgery, hip surgery, eye surgery, and follow-up amputation surgeries. He also was treated for injuries to his thigh, thumb and collar bone. He lost all vision in his right eye, but doctors are hoping to restore the vision in his left eye.

His parents — Tim, an equipment operator, and Carolee Ryan, who works for Southeast Regional Resource Center — flew down from their Juneau home to be with him at the hospital.

“We’ve kind of kept people away from him,” Ryan said. “Up until now he’s been extremely agitated, blind and defenseless and has been through a lot of trauma, and his brain was still re-wiring itself,” he said.

Two weeks after being at the center, he’s made calculable progress, Ryan says. When he was first admitted to the center, he was classified as “traumatic penetrating brain injury,” but that status has since been upgraded in his file. He passed a neurological psychological evaluation that determined he was capable of making his own medical decisions. That’s been an important one, Ryan says, since he didn’t like being on hard drugs to mitigate pain.

“For the longest time he was so drug-induced, he was so left-field all the time,” Ryan said. “...They listened to us, and they listened to him because he didn’t want any of the hard narcotics that made him feel weird or way out in left field. He refuses narcotics during the day, at night he allows some medication to take the pain away and get some sleep.”

The phantom pain seems to be the biggest problem now, his father said.

“The brain still thinks there’s limbs there where there’s not,” he said, describing it like a ice pick to the ankles.

He receives wound care for his leg and arm once a day where nurses check his wounds, peel off any scabbing and put ointment on.

But overall, he’s doing well, his dad says.

“He is doing much better, his wounds are healing up, and he’s been doing a lot of therapy,” Ryan said. “Now he’s pretty much on top of everything and hasn’t been disoriented, I guess you’d call it. He’s fully aware of the extent of his injuries and where he’s at.”

Ryan says it’s typical for the rehabilitation process to last at least a year. The next step is getting prosthetics fitted for him at Bethesda when he is ready.

“We’re pretty encouraged,” he said.

Friends in the community held a fundraiser Saturday night for McRae and raised more than $32,000 for him, said Michelle Locks, one of the organizers. Locks, whose daughter goes to the same school as Carolee’s grandson, said she planned on just opening up a bank account for McRae, but then it snowballed into a spaghetti dinner and silent auction fundraiser. She estimates about 500 people showed up for the event.

At the ceremony, the 27th Alaska Legislature Joint Veterans’ Caucus presented the family with an Alaskan flag, the same flag that flew over the State Office Building on the 50th anniversary of Alaska Statehood and again on March 2 in honor of McRae.

“I was completely blown away by how many people came out in support of Tom,” McRae’s sister Jessica Ryan said on Wednesday. “It was a night I will never ever forget.”

Tim Ryan, who could not make the event since he was in Richmond at the rehab center, said it was a heartwarming effort.

“It’s really heartwarming to know that the community is there for all of these guys,” Tim said.

Locks said those who still want to donate can go to the Alaska USA Federal Credit Union, and ask to put a donation under Jessica Ryan’s name.

 

Related links:

Wounded Juneau Marine on the mend in Md. hospital

Juneau Marine seriously injured by roadside bomb blast

Recipes for a reason

 

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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