Marine Who Smiled After His Limbs Were Blown Off Pushes Medical Science

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You don’t have to look far to find heroes among us – many already know someone who is fighting for our lives. Heroes are real – they’re soldiers.

US Marine Gunnery Sergeant Brian Meyer was a bomb technician in Afghanistan. In 2001, his life changed forever when an explosive device Meyer was defusing exploded prematurely. Only 29 years old, the Marine was nearly killed by the blast. The explosion took his right hand, his right leg just above the knee, and three fingers off his left hand.

Meyer was lucky to even have survived, so when a fellow soldier took a photo of the Sergeant while he was receiving treatment on the battlefield, he smiled – an expression that was just as inspiring as it was heartbreaking given the circumstances. Meyer knew that his defiance in the face of death would motivate his comrades to keep going.

Meyer’s attitude also set the tone for the long road ahead as the double amputee tried to live a normal life. Meyer, along with nearly 2,000 troops who have lost limbs in combat, are forcing military medicine to come up with accommodations for large populations of young, severely disabled combat veterans who want to continue their active lifestyles. Many amputees end up wearing out their prosthetics within months as they refuse to give up their favorite activities such as mountain climbing and running marathons.

Currently, the Naval Health Research Center is launching a six-year study on wounded warriors to track and study their quality of life on the road to recovery. Although Meyer is not part of this study yet, he plans to participate. In May, his story was featured in the New England Journal of Medicine to illustrate the success of battlefield trauma care.

Since 2011, Meyer has benefited from many of the military’s new medical strategies, including laser treatments.

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Cmdr. Peter Shumaker, chief of dermatology at Naval Medical Center San Diego, was a pioneer of the ablative laser – usually used to smooth wrinkled or acne-scarred skin – to ease Meyer’s scar tissue. Sumaker said:

“It’s a privilege to work with soldiers and Marines, like Brian, because they’re young and motivated and healthy and they can go farther than we ever thought. They don’t want to just walk, they want to do things that their colleagues are doing, their friends are doing.” [source]

Meyer spent a month after the 2011 explosion in the hospital. His lower right leg and right hand were completely gone, and only his pinky and ring finger remained on his left hand. It took several surgeries, but Meyer was finally given prosthetics and learned to walk again. However, Meyer was still only 29 years old and wanted more independence.

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Meyer declined offers to install wheelchair ramps at his house and even debated before accepting a handicap parking permit. He was determined to go anywhere. He said:

“I focus on what I have left, not what I lost.” [source]

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Meyer’s prosthetic arm has a flashlight installed so that the retired soldier can see where he plants his prosthetic foot at night. His prosthetic arm has knobs and a battery pack on one side so he can shoot a bow and arrow.

Because of the successful laser treatments on Meyer’s scar tissue, he is able to hold a toothbrush, write, dial his phone and pull the trigger of a hunting rifle. The laser treatments also removed a sore, so he can now wear his prosthetic leg for 18 hours a day.

This effort was pioneered by Shumaker and Dr. Chad Hivnor, who recently retired from Lackland Air Force Base. It was Hivnor who made the crucial discovery that botulinum toxin A injections decrease perspiration where the prosthetic limb attaches – therefore preventing the limb from slipping off if the wearer is exercising or in hot climates.

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Shumaker said:

“These are not special, scar lasers or special, wounded warrior lasers. We’ve taken these techniques that are primarily used for cosmetic purposes and altered them a bit to apply to trauma rehabilitation.” [source]

These unconventional treatments have made a huge difference in the daily lives of veterans. One soldier’s scar tissue has become soft enough that he can grasp his daughter’s hand. Another soldier can now type.

Just one week after a treatment, Meyer was riding his motorcycle. Using his pinky and ring finger, Meyer can operate the throttle – which was modified to go on the left side because he only has a left wrist. The motorcycle is accompanied by a side car that can carry another amputee, a wheelchair or his dog.

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Meyer, along with two others, started a nonprofit organization called Warfighter Made, which customizes sports cars, off-road vehicles and other transportation for veterans. The organization all customized Meyer’s motorcycle. Meyer, whose prosthetic leg sports a sticker of Bill Murray and the word “Laugh,” said:

“What we want is for a guy in the coolest car to drive into a handicap spot and have people be like, ‘What’s this guy doing?’ Then they see him get out with his prosthetic legs.” [source]

Now, Meyer counsels fellow combat marines at the Injured Marines Semper Fi Fund. He strives to be an inspiration for all people, not just amputees or those with disabilities. When asked about the famous photograph taken right after his explosion, Meyer said he loves that photograph, because

“It’s the exact opposite of what somebody expects you to do. So when I show it to people and they are inspired by it, instead of being shocked, I know they get it.” [source]