From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Wiggle Your Toes!

My childhood years of varied sports, including chasing a homemade wooden puck on roller skates up and down Cantrell Street in South Philadelphia, had given me strong legs and a healthy body that were prepared to endure and respond quickly.

When I was wounded seriously in action, I didn’t accept my condition of paralysis as permanent—although it did make life more complicated. But I wondered how to explain this condition to people back home, especially Mom and Dad, who only knew me as a happy-go-lucky, smiling kid who was nonstop on my pins. What about telling Grace, brother John and his wife Jeanne, and a lot of friends and relatives back in the States? And was there any solution to the problem of depending on others to do everything? Thoughts like these were another set of challenges to add to my new physical weaknesses.

Charlie was one of the first to ease the situation. He had a friendly smile on his face all day long, and frequently came across the aisle to talk with me. Charlie was the source of most information and always knew what was going on in the ward.

Charlie was the first who told me about the patient who was five or six beds from me. By twisting and turning my head and trunk, I could see the mass of bandages that Charlie said was Captain McCarthy. They kept McCarthy close to the nurses’ station, where he could get special attention when it was needed.

Charlie explained that the captain was a tank commander who had survived a fiery explosion when his tank was hit by the enemy. The captain climbed out of the tank with two broken legs and literally ran, on fire, thirty to fifty yards from the burning vehicle. His body and head were severely burned.

Something about that still, white-bandaged form made me count my blessings despite my lifeless legs. Charlie seemed to know everything about everyone in the ward.

But even Charlie was surprised to see an unfamiliar, pretty and smiling young nurse enter the ward early one morning. The lady smiled as she proceeded along the center aisle, unruffled by the patients’ whistles and greetings. I pushed myself up on my elbows as high as I could and stretched my neck to see what the commotion was all about. By the time I could see the nurse, she had steered right toward my bed.

She carried what looked like an elongated birdcage with no bottom and an electric bulb rigged inside its top. The nurse lieutenant introduced herself as Penny, a physical therapist, and placed a carefully folded sheet at the foot of my bed.

It didn’t take Charlie long to find his way to my bed. After all, what are ward buddies for? He greeted the attractive nurse, then told her I was not the one who needed therapy but that he, Charlie, was in dire need. “Anyway,” he said, “I outrank him!”

Penny laughed this off and, turning to me, said she would come in every day at about the same hour to spend some time helping me “get those legs working again.” This was the first time anyone had suggested such a possibility. While I had no idea what physical therapy was, I was delighted, especially with the thought of this new friend coming to see me, at her own invitation. I especially relished the idea of Charlie standing by, green with envy, watching her in action.

The first “treatment” began immediately. Nurse Penny uncovered my legs and placed the birdcage contraption over them. She covered it with the sheet and plugged it in, lighting the bulb. It wasn’t long before I felt the warmth. Penny told me she would be back in about twenty minutes. Once again, she flashed her pretty, therapeutic smile and left. What a morale builder—and I was responsible for it. Things were looking up!

Penny’s visits and birdcage applications were always followed by hand massaging that began with my feet, followed by my legs. This kind of treatment both overwhelmed and embarrassed me at first. I was always the center of attention in the ward as long as Penny was there.

Next Nurse Penny touched each toe, or pointed to it, as she coaxed me to work hard at thinking about moving it. “Think Scotty! . . . Move!” she’d urge. Eventually, she was joined by the rest of the ward, Charlie’s raspy voice generally in the lead. The battle cry was “Wiggle your toes, Scotty!”

It seemed the whole ward, myself included, was fully devoted to talking my toes into moving. This was a battle not unlike combat, where mind and will joined together against the enemy—a motionless pair of big toes.

Penny was there the day I first wiggled my left big toe! She watched eagerly as the toe slowly bent downward under its own power, then moved up. As word spread around the ward about the victory, Charlie led those nearby in a big cheer.

I have no doubt that Penny’s coaching and unfailing cheerfulness were a big part of my recovery. Her presence in the ward did wonders for us all. I learned before leaving England that Penny’s sweetheart was a young pilot “missing in action,” but if she was down, she never let it show.

Once the challenge of the big toe had been met, it was followed by major improvements in moving my left foot and leg. The right foot proved more difficult; my right toes were obstinate (and still are, fifty-five years later).

Even so, after a month of help with learning to walk again, I was able to shed my crutches. But I have never shed my memory of the lovely nurse whose dedication to her work inspired my recovery and turned a group of wounded soldiers into an unlikely cheerleading section. I still have to smile when I picture them all, shouting loud enough to shake the walls, “Wiggle your toes, Scotty!”

Walter W. Scott

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