As Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg stood up in the House chamber to long applause during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech last week, several people in Tampa felt emotional tugs at the sight of the severely wounded soldier in his crisp Class A uniform.
That’s because long before he became an international face of wounded soldiers thanks to being the guest of the first family, Cory Remsburg’s battle to regain consciousness after grievous injury was won at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.
“He was in a near-death situation when he came to Haley,” says Stephen Scott, the hospital chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation and polytrauma program, of Remsburg’s arrival on Nov. 12, 2009. “Then to see him there, standing and making a gesture contact with the president, it was a speechless moment. What we were seeing is what is best about many who serve our country.”
The first time Scott met Remsburg was inside a C-17 transport plane flying from Germany back to the U.S.
Scott, who had been visiting U.S. military medical facilities, was on a flight with about 60 wounded troops. Remsburg, who was on his 10th deployment, was found face-down in a creek after being blown up by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on Oct. 1, 2009. As the plane flew across the Atlantic, Remsburg was in a make-shift intensive care unit in the back.
“Cory was in a life-or-death situation,” Scott says.
During the long flight, Scott says he bonded with Remsburg’s father, Craig.
“We spent a lot of time talking,” Scott says. “Cory wasn’t doing well on the flight and his father didn’t know if he would make it or not and was having a very difficult time. One of the things I witnessed was the tremendous love of his father and the compassion and caring for his son.”
Scott says he left Craig Remsburg with a thought.
“I never say ‘can’t,’” Scott says. “I always say ‘can.’ I told Craig that on the plane. We are can-do here in Tampa and that’s why he brought his son here from Phoenix, where they live.”
A short six weeks after being wounded, Remsburg arrived at Haley in what was essentially a coma, Scott says.
“He wasn’t responding at all,” Scott says. “He was tensing up and his blood pressure was very high. He wasn’t saying anything and his eyes weren’t tracking.”
So Remsburg underwent what was a fairly new treatment regiment, called the Emerging Consciousness Program, created to cope with the onslaught of brain injuries as IEDs began to take a greater toll on troops.
The program was started to “wake up” patients with severe head injuries by doing different kinds of therapies to stimulate a response and then condition that response so that Remsburg could repeat them on his own, Scott says. It was a hospital-wide effort.
By January 2010, Remsburg woke up from his coma, says Scott. But he was facing many other health issues.
When he arrived at Haley, he wasn’t eating, was on a ventilator to help him breath and had tubes in his chest because both lungs were injured. He had a penetrating injury to his head, lost vision in his right eye, was paralyzed on his left side, and had facial fractures and burns as well.
“He has seizures and infections and all kinds of issues,” Scott says. “I would say hundreds of people were involved in his care here.”
Remsburg had a strong support system beyond the hospital staff.
When he arrived, his hospital room was filled with about two dozen of his fellow Rangers, including the soldier who pulled him out of the creek.
His dad and step-mom were constantly by his side, says Scott, staying more than 400 days at the Fisher House, which gives families of critically injured soldiers a place to stay.
Operation Helping Hand Tampa, which provides assistance to families of the wounded, helped the Remsburgs with rental cars and money, says Bob Silah, a retired Navy captain and organization chairman.
Through it all, Remsburg maintained a tremendous work ethic, says Scott, always pushing himself to improve.
“He underwent seven, eight hours of therapy every day, even on weekends,” says Scott. “He was highly motivated. He wanted to go back and serve.”
For the staff at Haley, treating Remsburg was a series of small victories. Eventually, he was able to talk again, at first speaking with a high, nasal voice, and saying periodic words, says Scott.
By December 2011, Remsburg was well enough to leave Haley.
“He was fairly stable,” says Scott. “He had a lot of rehabilitative surgery at Haley and Walter Reed, where his original surgeon was.”
Last summer, Remsburg returned to Haley for a visit, walking through the hospital.
For the staff, it was an inspiring sight.
“I don’t think anyone, when they first saw him, expected him to stand,” says Scott.
Watching Remsburg stand up next to Michelle Obama with the help of his father and give a thumbs-up with his right hand in the House chamber last week “was amazing,” says Silah.
“I remember he smiled and gave the thumbs-up here when he couldn’t talk,” Silah says. “It was great to see him make such big improvements.”
Scott boils his reaction down to a few words.
“Wow,” he says about seeing Remsburg at the State of the Union. “Just wow.”