Monday, 25 October 2010

Lose your legs and smile - How Can You Mend This Purple Heart?

‘How Can You Mend This Purple Heart?’ is not an intrinsically funny book.

It is the story of how a young naval recruit, Jeremy Shoff, is involved in a lethal car crash coming back from a party and finds himself in the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia among a ward full of mutilated Vietnam veterans who have lost between one and three limbs while stepping on landmines in the war that was considered by many Americans to have brought shame upon their country.

While some of the therapeutic treatment of these wounds is agonising, it is the convalescence which is the most traumatic, not only for the endless pain subdued by massive amounts of pain killers, but also for the physical and psychological adjustments required to face almost an entire life of handicap after having been the fittest of the fittest, and for the horrific flashbacks to the moment when this crippling transition occurred.

Jeremy is looked down upon as a non-combatant by one hardened and embittered marine in particular, and Terry Gould is excellent at identifying the complex socio-military cross-currents of the situation – marines vs. non-marines, optimists vs. pessimists, warriors vs. peaceniks.

However, and miraculously, most of this book is far from dour. There is a tremendous fondness and understanding in the writing, a recognition of the humanity in all of the participants in all situations, and true admiration for the tact, professionalism and generosity of the hospital staff.

It also regularly dips into outrage and rises to humour, once both at the same time when a passing admiral insists on being treated with the respect he so little deserves.

In common with its publishing stable-mate ‘Confronting Cancer with the QiGong Edge’ by Robert Ellal, this is a book detailing extreme medical trauma that transcends the horror of what it is describing to offer the residual hope that many human beings can overcome almost any setback, the message and the quality of writing exemplified by Primo Levi in his books about the Holocaust.

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