Run, Dont Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Medical Center

Nursing Book Club

Run, Dont Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Medical Center

By Adele Levine Avery (Penguin, 2014)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

I’ve been through physical therapy myself, for my bad knees, and I can testify that it’s not a lot of fun. How much worse would it be if you didn’t have a knee anymore or if on top of your physical impairment you had a traumatic brain injury that made following instructions difficult?

Author Adele Levine sets out to explore those questions, bringing us into the world of physical therapy at Walter Reed Medical Center in the days following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when new and horrifying injuries were common. Physical therapists had no playbook from which to work.

The Aftermath of War

Levine’s patients were the most seriously injured and her job was to get them ready for the real world again. While we might walk into a P.T. facility complaining of tennis elbow or a painful knee, Levine’s patients often came to her after being shipped home from a war zone, having surgery they might or might not remember and waking to find entire body parts missing. Many of her introductions to patients began, “Do you know where you are?”  

For the physical therapists at Walter Reed, care plans often included working around multiple surgical drains and external fixation devices. Most of the patients had an attitude and just didn’t want to show up for appointments, although because they lived on site, Levine could chase them down when necessary. She was determined to teach her patients what they needed to know in order to improve and make them contribute to that effort. I got the feeling that in most cases, she was successful.

A Tough Job

None of the work Levine describes sounds easy, and through her account, we get some insight into her character and determination. Like most physical therapists, she stays in great shape. While I spend my lunch breaks reading, knitting or napping, Levine trains for marathons, bike challenges and bay swims. More power to her — her patients can thank her for her strength.

From Levine, I learned about how prostheses are made and the arduous process an amputee must go through to adjust to the device, which is much more work than I’d thought. I now better understand the bravery of amputees who use prostheses and I can see why some patients would prefer to just sit in a wheelchair.

Closing Walter Reed

Stories about Levine’s patients are interspersed with stories to which we can all relate, like arguments about who should make the coffee or plan social outings for the group. For physical therapists, just like nurses, patient care inspires a definite camaraderie. Those of us who share those experiences are all one big family and we know it, even if we don’t always like it.

Walter Reed Medical Center, the nation’s longest-operating military hospital, is now closed, having transferred its last patient to Bethesda Naval Hospital in September 2011. Levine ends the book with her transition to the new facility, which makes me wonder if there is a sequel in store.

I greatly enjoyed this book, perhaps because I can identify with the author. I also lived in Washington D.C., not far from Levine, and came to nursing as a second career, happy to get a regular paycheck and to realize that I was considered good at what I did. In any case, this is a well-written, no-nonsense memoir that I have to include among my favorite books of the last few years.


Wounded Warriors

A 2014 survey conducted by the Wounded Warrior Project shows the terrible human cost of war. The chart below lists the percentage of post-9/11 military personnel who report the following injuries or health problems:

Sleep problems: 75.8%
Post-traumatic stress disorder: 75.2%
Back, neck or shoulder problems: 72.3%
Depression: 67.1%
Tinnitus: 54.5%
Knee injuries: 50.7%
Migraine headaches: 49.8%
Hearing loss: 48.3%
Traumatic brain injury: 43.2%
Military sexual trauma, women: 31.7%
Nerve injury: 29.6%
Fractured bones: 19.3%
Hand injuries: 18.2%
Spinal cord injury: 15.5%
Hip injury: 13.7%
Shrapnel problems: 9.5%
Burns, severe: 2.5%
Blindness: 2.4%
Amputation: 2.3%
Military sexual trauma, men: 1.9%
No physical injuries or health problems: 0.7%

For further information, visit the Wounded Warrior Project.

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.

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