MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Whether a strained joint or muscle during physical training, or a bullet or shrapnel wound on the battlefield, injuries take time to heal. This is where the Physical Therapy Department at the Robert E. Bush Naval Hospital comes to the rescue.
With an average of 1,000 patients a month and only four physical therapist technicians, one clerk, and one physical therapist, the department never seems to stop buzzing around treating patients.
Surprisingly, many of the injuries are due to individual error during physical training. “A lot of injuries have to do with incorrect running form,” said Navy Lt. Aileen Pletta, the department’s physical therapist. “As I drive, I see Marines running with terrible form and seeing that makes me think ‘You are a future patient waiting to happen.’”
The large active duty population here provides Pletta with 10-12 patients per day. “It’s a busy clinic, but I love what I do.”
Unlike the average hospital section, they develop a connection with the patients because they sometimes have three appointments a week. “We get to build relationships with each person,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Heath Wilhoit, a physical therapy technician at the Naval Hospital.
“We build a trust and educate them in rehab. It’s not only physically therapeutic but also mentally therapeutic,” he added.
The staff seems to always stay busy, but the amount of patients needing help are too much for a six person staff. “I am a month out with appointments,” Pletta said. “We are backed up right now. If an injury is severe, you should get with your doctor and I will communicate with him to see if I can squeeze you in for an earlier appointment.”
Despite the crazy schedule, the department gives patients nothing but their best. “The care we give here is exceptional,” Pletta said, a native of Rochester Minn.
As the only physical therapist in the department, Pletta makes it a point to personally understand what each patient is going through to properly care for them.
All the while Marines undergoing physical therapy see themselves progress. “I have seen a lot of improvement,” said Cpl. Justin Reeves, a Marine with the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.
Reeves has had a shoulder injury for more than three years, which originated in recruit training. He recently underwent surgery and is now recovering. “I went from no range of motion [in my arm] to almost full [range of motion] in two months. They do a good job here.”
Lance Cpl. Alfonso Mavarro, a Marine from 3rd LAR, is recovering from a knee surgery and is working hard to better his chances of deploying in the future with his unit. “I have been in therapy for three months, and I feel like I am getting better,” Mavarro said. “I am trying to deploy.”
Recovery is the ultimate focus when being treated in the department. Some patients the staff has treated in the past will never be forgotten because of their recovery story. “We had a Marine who was hit with an Improvised Explosive Device in Afghanistan,” Pletta said. “He came in with lower back pain. He has made tremendous strides through physical therapy and the chiropractor and has now been pain free for two weeks. That Marine recently got to hold his little girl, because he wasn’t able to before. He is looking to reenlist as well.”
Seeing people recover and watching their improvement shows the men and women in the department their job makes a difference. “That is ultimately why I’m here,” Pletta said. “I’d say the best thing is getting people back on full duty, when you can get someone ready to reenlist or deploy. It hurts me the most when people aren’t getting better.”
Although pain is a part of healing, pushing through the hard times of recovery produces great results. “We make people cry here,” Wilhout said, “but to see them go from barely walking to being able to get around and continue with the Marine Corps and their job, that’s huge.”