The student riding the Segway stands out on the bicycle-laden Stanford campus. His short hair and erect bearing suggest he is a veteran. The prosthetic legs that extend from his torso to the Segway stand confirm it.
I had seen Dan Berschinski one day on campus and asked Tim Hsia, student president of the Military Connected Network, if he could introduce me. Berschinski, I learned, had just finished his first year at the Stanford Graduate School of Business - and he's on a mission. As was highlighted in a CBS News story last fall, he's at Stanford to learn how to grow his current business into a thriving enterprise, hopefully one that employs veterans with disabilities.
Ever since he woke up in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after having his legs blown off by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan, the West Point graduate has been thinking of ways to help veterans.
“Look, I was an officer,” he told me recently. “I couldn’t sit there feeling sorry for myself. My soldiers were still in Afghanistan, still getting killed. And the hospital was full of guys with injuries as bad or worse than mine.” Berschinski was sitting with me at a campus cafe, his Segway and cane propped against the door. The fact that he's able to walk on his prosthetic legs is a miracle, although, he said with a small laugh, his doctors were hesitant to use that word. “Let’s just say that nobody with my injury has ever walked out of Walter Reed,” he said, hands firmly placed on his thighs.
Berschinski’s right prosthetic leg attaches to his hip - there was nothing left of his leg to salvage. On his left side, he must force the portion of his thigh that is left into a sleeve. He explained this all to me matter-of-factly. In fact, Berschinski is quick to point out that he feels lucky. Pointing to his left hand, which is missing a finger and is marked by a large portion of a skin graft, he said, “Hey, they were able to save this hand. If they hadn’t, I would be a triple amputee.” Shaking his head, Dan continued, “Those guys have it rough.”
The use of IEDs and the length of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that there are veteran amputees in numbers not seen since the Civil War. But in a society where only less than 1 percent of the population participated in those wars, these veterans are somewhat invisible. Berschinski is out to change that by raising the visibility of veterans who have lost limbs. In addition, he wants to shine light on civilian amputees, particularly children, who often cannot afford prosthetics. He serves on the board of the Amputee Coalition, using what he describes as this “new change in my life” to help others who he believes aren't as fortunate as he. “I have the advantage of being cared for by the government. I have access to cutting edge prosthetic limbs and care. Most people don’t have that.”
Asked if he has advice for current medical students who might be treating patients who have lost limbs, he was quick to answer. “Yes. Your optimism, and your support are critical. Yes, the medical skills are important. But you have to understand that patients are looking to you for hope. And don’t ever underestimate the willpower of your patients. Certainly don’t give up on them.”
Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of the Arts, Humanities, and Medicine Program within the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.
Previously: Battling hearing loss on and off the battlefield and Stanford graduates partner with clinics in developing countries to test low-cost prosthetic
Photo courtesy of Dan Berschinski