Skip to comments.Soldier lost half his skull but not his determination (*S-N-I-F-!*)
Posted on 06/14/2009 6:39:36 AM PDT by SandRat
Even when half your skull is missing, life goes on. For ex-soldier Erik Castillo, gravely wounded by mortar fire in Iraq in 2004, life is going better than expected.
Five years have passed since he woke up drooling and paralyzed in an Army hospital with a coconut-sized hole in his cranium an injury from which doctors said he would never fully recover.
The road back to some sort of normalcy has been rife with pain and indignity. He's been stared at by strangers, coped with countless surgeries and infections, and battled rage, self-pity and depression. Through it all, he kept hoping he could reach a point where life seemed worth living again. Finally, he has.
"I'm happy with who I am now," said Castillo, 25, a 2001 graduate of Rio Rico High School who now lives in Tucson. Today, Castillo can walk unassisted a feat that took more than three years to achieve. He owns a house and plans to go to college next year after more surgery later this year to repair his right eye socket and realign a droopy eye.
"I'm making the best of my life," he said. "No matter what, I'm not going to sit around and complain about my suffering."
Doctors say his progress represents a triumph of determination over despair, something that isn't unusual among wounded veterans even those as severely injured as Castillo.
Harriet Zeiner, a neuropsychologist who has treated dozens of brain-injured troops, including Castilllo, said people often ask her at social gatherings if she finds the work depressing. Quite the opposite, she said.
"It's inspiring to see how hard these people fight to heal," said Zeiner, who works at the veterans hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., home of a regional polytrauma center that specializes in such care.
The vast majority of patients like Castillo "don't give up no matter what's facing them," Zeiner said. Only a small fraction less than 5 percent, she estimates "curl up in a ball" after being wounded.
"To me that is amazing, to see people who are knocked completely down get up and choose to fight for themselves." "This is not going to beat me" Castillo joined the Army for college money in 2003 and was sent to Baghdad the following year. Trained as an artilleryman, he instead ended up on convoy duty.
Two weeks after his 21st birthday, he was hit by a mortar round while he inspected his Humvee.
His fight to heal has forced Castillo to dig deep for the courage to go forward.
He still recalls the night he fell out of the wheelchair he used for years. He lay alone on the floor for what seemed like hours, crying and feeling sorry for himself as his back ached.
"I got lost in self-pity," he said. "But somehow I was able to tell myself, 'This is not going to beat me.' "
Twice last year, the plate doctors inserted beneath his scalp to patch the hole in his skull got infected and had to be removed. Each time, he had to wear a helmet for months to protect his brain while the site healed.
Passers-by have gawked at Castillo since the start of his ordeal. With the helmet, it got worse.
At shopping malls, in restaurants and grocery stores, strangers would glance, look away, then glance again. Sometimes he coped by pretending not to notice. For a while, embarrassment turned him into a shut-in.
"There were times I didn't want to go out because people would stare, and I would feel so down. I would try to not let it bother me, but that's easier to say than do.
"A couple of times, people have come up and asked me, 'Were you in an car accident?' and I tell them, 'No, I was in Iraq and got hit.' And they'll be like 'Oh my God, I'm so sorry.'
"If people knew why I am the way I am, they wouldn't stare they way they do. I've learned to not let it bother me. Now I just go about my business, and I don't care what people think." Therapy continues That laid-back outlook is more evidence of how far Castillo has come.
Early on in recovery, he was prone to angry outbursts, which is common in patients with frontal lobe damage. Therapy has helped curb that tendency, he said. On top of his health issues, Castillo is in the midst of a breakdown of his brief marriage to a childhood sweetheart. But even that, he said, isn't going to sink him.
"I've been through worse," he said. "It's disappointing, but I'll get through it."
At the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System in Tucson, where Castillo still has outpatient therapy twice a week, a whole team of health-care workers is cheering him on.
"We love Erik. He's a guy who touches your heart," said Dianne Lethaby, a polytrauma nurse case manager who helps coordinate Castillo's care.
"He is very inspirational, very independent, very goal-oriented. He's had a lot of setbacks, and he's overcome every one of them.
"And he's fun. He tells jokes and shows us his before and after pictures. You can tell he really wants to be out in the community living life again."
While some critics maintain the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't do enough to help wounded veterans, Castillo has high praise for the care he's received. In addition to his medical needs, the VA arranged for renovations to his house and voice-recognition software for his computer typing is tough because only one of his hands functions normally.
His care team includes an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, a recreational therapist and a social worker.
"Everything I've asked for, they've gone out of their way to try to get it for me," said Castillo, whose living and medical expenses are covered for life because of his war-related injuries.
He recently attended a series of seminars at the University of Arizona aimed at encouraging disabled veterans to enroll. Castillo hasn't settled on a school yet, but hopes to study a computer-related field such as graphic design. New outlook Zeiner, the neuropsychologist at Palo Alto's VA, said that while Castillo's progress is impressive, it can't be considered a happy ending. That would be disrespectful of his suffering, she said, and of "the price all these veterans have paid for us."
"He's coping beautifully, and I'm so glad. But I'm not under any illusions that his life won't be more difficult than someone who has not been injured."
Castillo, she said, has succeeded at one of the most difficult things a human being can be called upon to do: create a new vision of the world and his place in it.
"Our society revolves around people striving to be the fastest, the brightest, the best of the best. With a brain injury, that's no longer possible. The patients who can let go and say, "I'm going to do the best I can do on a different level,' those are the ones who do well.
"He's a hero," she said of Castillo.
"He tries hard and does his best and has accepted the hand he was dealt. And he has done it in an extraordinary way."
On StarNet: Find a photo gallery of this story at azstarnet.com/slideshows
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are so lucky to have these men and women that give life and limb for our freedom. Prayers for this soldier’s continued recovery.
Very inspiring. God bless Erik Castillo in his life journey.
“On top of his health issues, Castillo is in the midst of a breakdown of his brief marriage to a childhood sweetheart.”
Not that its my business, but wonder what the reasoning is behind this.
God bless this man.
“Five years have passed since he woke up drooling and paralyzed...”
It would have been nice if this so called reporter left out “drooling.” What a putz.
I think that this is how you define the word “courage”.
Good bless him, continued prayers up.
Amazing the depth of strength this Soldier has. I am constantly amazed at how resilient people can be.
Prayers for his continued recovery to the best of his ability.
Thanks for the post and ping Sand.
If I were ever to suffer an injury or illness that is this serious...this disfiguring...this damaging..I would specifically give my wife permission to move on with her life by leaving me.In fact,I'd basically *insist* that she did so.I'd do so out of love for her.
Yes,I know."In sickness and in health".But still....
What would you expect from her if she were horribly disfigured, say, in a car wreck or a fire?
Fair enough. I just wonder if it was of her own volition. You see what I’m getting at. I just don’t see much loyalty anymore and as such I can see this being the whole, eh, its too hard thing. But then again, I have never been in a situation like this so I don’t really have room to talk.
Question? Does his soon to be ex have any rights to his VA or other compensations?
Too many times we hear of the men who marry too young and too quickly. It rips your heart out.
One I know of a young man married his new love before he shipped out to Iraq. Tragedy struck and he was killed in battle.
The 17 year old widow refused to give the family any of his personal items! He had filled out all the forms that made her his legal wife. The family cared nothing for any money.
The young women who knew him for a few weeks will most likely forget him when the money runs out.
I'm not married at the moment so it's a moot point for the time being.I was speaking theoretically.But I think that a sign of true love would be to do what I've suggested...particularly when the couple is younger.
Assuming you're currently married (which,I know,may not be the case) have you ever said anything to your wife like "honey,if I should die I'd want to see you remarry at some point"...? If you have,the point I made comes from about the same place in one's heart as does the "I'd want you to remarry" comment does.
Yes,the case mentioned in this article could well be a case of a lack of true love...a marriage of convenience...a lack of loyalty.But I don't think we can be sure of that.And as for the 17 year old widow...that,too,could be a case of selfishness...a lack of true love.But,IMO,it could also be a case of a young girl,lacking much of the wisdom and experience that she'll probably have at 40,being so distraught that she figured that his "personal items" were all that she had left of him.
Just my 2 cents' worth.
My 2cents. I discovered the best in myself when my infant child faced almost certain death...then almost certain 'non viable life'...almost certain mental retardation...after being misdiagnosed when having spinal meningitis. In each instance he was given a 25% chance for any recovery. I had to dig deeper that I thought possible for strength. I found an inner strength, which these 30 something years later has served me well. I highly recommend you allow your wife to find her own path should you ever be in such a condition. She may find she needs to leave...or she may find an inner strength that she'd not have the opportunity to discover otherwise. /my 2 cents
P.S. My son made a miraculous recovery and is a wonderful, self sufficient, self supporting, tax paying adult American today.
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