1. By the Editors of Advances in Skin & Wound Care

Article Content


Figure. No caption a... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. No caption available.

Acknowledging that sharing the journey he has taken as a triple amputee is therapeutic for him, Max Cleland, war hero and former US Senator from Georgia, brought attendees of the 18th Annual Clinical Symposium on Advances in Skin & Wound Care to their feet-and many to tears-with the heartfelt story of his struggle to make a new life for himself as he healed the inner and outer wounds he suffered in Vietnam.


Cleland uses a wheelchair for mobility, which puts him at risk for developing a pressure ulcer. His lecture gave attendees a glimpse into the lived experience of a person with a disabling injury and the role they can play in improving the care of persons who are at risk for pressure ulcers for any reason.


The lecture was supported by an educational grant from the Spinal Cord Injury Education and Training Foundation of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.


How Am I Going to Survive?

Cleland's lecture title, "Strong at the Broken Places," pays homage to a quote from Ernest Hemingway, "The world breaks us all and afterward many are strong at the broken places." At age 26, Cleland-a "tall, tan, and tantalizing" captain in the army-learned how brutally a person can be broken. In Khe Sahn, 1 month before the scheduled end of his tour of duty in Vietnam, Cleland saw a grenade on the ground. Thinking it was his (it was not), he bent to pick it up.


"I was 5 inches from the grenade when it blew up," he said. "My right arm and leg were blown off instantly; my left leg was amputated 1 hour later."


Cleland credits the Marines who immediately put him on a chopper bound for the hospital, 42 pints of blood, and 5 hours of surgery with saving his life. But once he returned to the United States for recuperation and rehabilitation, he was left wondering, "How am I going to survive this? How am I going to get out and put together a life?"


Renewed Sense of Self

He did not have a lot of answers. But once he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility for long-term care, he began finding the pieces of his new life. And he credits the health care professionals there for helping to make him stronger at his broken places.


"Patients look up to you to see if you believe they're going to get better," he said. He remembers the sergeant who changed his stump bandages daily. One day, he asked the sergeant what his chances were. "He said, 'I've seen a lot worse than you walk out of here,'" Cleland said. "That sustained me."


Overcoming not only the physical trauma, but also the emotional trauma gets to the heart of healing, Cleland said. The deepest wounds, after all, are on the psyche.


"It takes real courage to come back from a wound," he said. "Deep in that wound is a sense of failure. That's a dark place to be."


An avid athlete prior to his injury, Cleland said that a milestone in his healing process was "learning to shoot free throws as well with my left hand as with my right." That gave him "a powerful sense of self" and helped rehabilitate his inner scars and prepare him for his new life.


A Life of Public Service

When he returned to his parents' home in Georgia, he thought, "I have no car, no apartment, no girlfriend, no job, and no future[horizontal ellipsis]this would be a great time to run for the state senate." And he did, becoming, at age 28, the youngest member of the Georgia senate.


In the senate, he met and befriended the future President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. As president, Carter named Cleland administrator of the Veterans Administration, making Cleland the agency's youngest ever administrator and first Vietnam veteran in the post.


Cleland's public service was far from over when Carter was voted out of office. In 1982, Cleland became the youngest secretary of state in Georgia's history. He resigned the position in 1995 to run for the US Senate seat being vacated by retiring Senator Sam Nunn. Although outspent 3 to 1, Cleland was elected and was sworn into the US Senate in 1997.


Change in the Blink of an Eye

No longer a US senator, Cleland continues his public service to the nation as a member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9-11 Commission). He also visits with military personnel injured in Iraq.


"I identify with the kids in Iraq today," he said, referring to the uncertainty of the situation in that country. "Life can change dramatically and drastically in an instant."