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David Ortiz: Redefining Wingman

June 01, 2015

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David Ortiz, a US Army helicopter pilot, nearly lost his life when his helicopter crashed because of engine failure while on a combat mission in Afghanistan. His road through recovery and rehabilitation was met with hardship as he tried to navigate the VA health system. His brother Mike put his own life on hold and stayed by David’s side.

Here's a blog from David in his own words:

David's Blog

In all there great stories… movies… books.. the true hero is NOT the main character, the protagonist facing the challenges. More times than not, it’s the ones carrying the main character.. pushing them to be the person they were meant to be. It took me some time into my recovery to realize this.. BUT that’s what my younger brother, Mike, did for me. It’s quite a game changer to go from being a hard charging, type A, overachieving scout pilot in love with the sky that needed no one… To go from THAT to being broken, clinging to life and having your younger brother lead you back from the brink. My brother has always been one of my best friends. He was my wingman in good times and in many scrapes. Though he could be a bit irresponsible. a little lost… struggling to navigate his life at times, our year together after my crash has put us both on the path to becoming the men we are meant to be. There isn’t a more humbling, yet proud experience to realize how instrumental my younger brother was to reclaiming my life… and in doing so… I helped him reclaim his.

When I ask Mike what sticks out about my recovery, he recalls the first time he saw me after my crash when I was in the ICU at Walter Reed.

“I was walking by the window of your room and I was in disbelief at what I saw. You didn’t even look like you. You were swollen everywhere.. twice your size.. your head was half shaved stitches in your head.. around your ears… you were intubated.. tubes coming from everywhere a tube coming out of your mouth… your chest.. your back.. your legs. Metal rods drilled into your legs.. It was like seeing a Frankenstein version of you.”

My brother, knowing me all too well, took a photo of me when I was in that state. “You always enjoyed a challenge… you’re in your element when you have something to come back from and I knew you’d want a reminder of where you started.”

My recovery is defined by two distinct chapters, before Craig (BC) and after Craig (AC). Before Craig, it was about surviving.. getting the intubation tube out of my mouth.. swallowing solid foods again.. getting out of the ICU… piecing myself and my life back together. I found out quickly that the VA and Army Medical facilities were not equipped to help make the most of a recovery from a Spinal Cord injury. They were great at first response.. surviving the crash when I probably shouldn’t have.. keeping me alive until I got back to the states. They managed to reconstruct my lower limbs and salvaged my right foot and ankle when amputation was originally on the table. I didn’t find out about Craig Hospital until my main care physician at the Audie Murphy VA Spinal Cord Unit (himself an incomplete quad named Dr. Fredrickson) rolled up to me and said, “You don’t belong here. You are too young, too strong, and too motivated for us to make the most out of your recovery.”He gave me a list of a few hospitals I should look into. Craig was one of them.

After doing my homework and researching Craig, I became single minded in my efforts to fight in order to get here. It wasn’t until a year after my crash that I finally made it to Craig. When I think back at my efforts in the beginning, Mike puts it best.

“He’s like one of those little wind up cars… when you put the car down it goes darting off in one direction or another until they hit a wall… BUT instead of stopping like most would, he would go darting off in another direction. Frustration turned into drive. I’ve seen him chew out doctors.. push his commanders. He knew that he earned and deserved better. He wasn’t going to let anyone get in the way of that.”

Coming to Craig was a game changer. “To be around so many positive and capable people.. for the first time in his recovery, we felt like we could breath and relax.”The reason my brother felt like he could relax wasn’t just the result of good training and a positive attitude, it’s because the people you work with there.. the nurses.. physical therapists.. they BECOME like family. Mike continues,

“They become a part of the growing process. The better you did, the better everyone felt. When you had a rough day.. you could see that on everyone’s face too. They go through it with you.. just like family would.”

Relationships are made up of moments. And my time at Craig Hospital is full of them. From the awkward ones… being made to dress in Peter Pan tights by the kids from Hanger so my lower half could be casted for leg orthotics… the anticipation of getting on my feet again… To the tender ones. My physical therapist saying under her breath, “Oh no…”“What.. what happened?” I asked. And with honesty yet fear of inflating my already healthy ego she responded, “You’re becoming one of my favorites.” There was the BBQ in the courtyard outside family housing where I got to meet the “Quad Squad”. A group of quadriplegics that went through together and now schedule their re-evals together. That outgoing group of guys invited me out and took me in without hesitation. Serving as mentors of sorts. Dressing up for Halloween. Celebrating one of my favorite holidays at the hospital and then going out to celebrate it just as I would before the crash. Getting on a handcycle and going on a bike ride with my brother and friends. Unknown to me my brother hopped off his bike and traded with a rec therapist and sat himself in a recumbent hind bike. Just as we used to do before the injury he tried to gain speed behind me and race me to the end of the street. The way I’m telling it, is he never had a chance. Then there were the therapists at Peak cranking up the music during their Friday afternoon session.. a rare lull.. having mini dance parties to keep the energy going making each other and the patients smile. There’s really no other way to express why Craig was so integral to recovery other than they redefine what family could be.

My brother Mike was truly my Samwise, supporting me for an entire year. At moments, literally carrying me.. my little baby brother.. “Hordoring” me around on his back at times. But Craig took on a part of that challenge. It’s more than fancy equipment and well-trained staff with positive attitudes. They are family… AND NOTHING I could ever do will adequately express NOR begin to pay them and my brother back for what they've done.

Our year together after my crash has put us both on the path to becoming the men we are meant to be. There isn’t a more humbling, yet proud experience to realize how instrumental my younger brother was to reclaiming my life.

David Ortiz