Pictured above: Mary Torczon (L) and Jennifer Weatherford on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean during the Maine Lighthouse Ride in Portland, Maine.
“These days, life is phenomenal” says Mary Torczon. “Things have never been better.” However, getting to this point, Mary endured years of hardship, loss, and grief.
In February 2009, Mary Torczon suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) when an improvised explosive device exploded about 20 feet from her as she was passing near an Iraqi police checkpoint near Mosul. In an instant, the suicide car bomb ripped through the Humvee in front of her, taking the lives of her battalion commander and her two best friends.
Mary was supposed to be sitting inside the vehicle shredded by the explosion but at the last minute, her battalion commander ordered Mary to ride in the second vehicle so an interpreter could ride with him. That decision still haunts her.
The loss of her friends and her initial injuries were devastating, but things continued to worsen. Four years later, Mary suffered a stroke brought on by her initial TBI. The stroke left her with aphasia (difficulty in being able to speak) and right side weakness. “It sucked. It really sucked” she says. “After all this, my fiancé of seven years, father of my child, left me – and I was alone. I kept thinking, now what do I do?”
What Mary did was enroll in the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Program at the Audie L. Murphy VAMC in San Antonio and began putting her life back together.
The Polytrauma Transitional Rehabilitation Program (PTRP) helped Mary and countless others find ways to be more active and engaged through adaptive yoga, rock climbing, archery, and cycling.
Dawn Phillips, recreation therapist at the PTRP, began working with Mary in 2015 and has helped her find her new path in life. “We keep our Veterans moving and we keep them engaged. no one is alone here,” says Phillips. “Social engagement is the best medicine.”
Mary Torczon at the conclusion of the Lighthouse Ride in Portland, Maine where she completed 42 miles in 1 day.
While the PTRP provides a step in Veteran recovery, it also relies on community resources to help Veterans continue their therapy.
Operation Comfort, based in San Antonio, has been collaborating with VA to help Mary and other Veterans transition to the community.
“When I first met Mary, she needed a lot of assistance,” said Jennifer Weatherford, recreation therapist with Operation Comfort. “I remember Mary needing help walking and especially needed help getting into the recumbent bike and getting her feet on the pedals,” she adds. “Now she is amazing. She has participated in multiple bike rides in Texas, as well as the Maine Lighthouse Ride in Portland, Maine, where she completed 42 miles in 1 day.”
“Cycling got my anxiety out,” says Mary. “It’s my favorite. I can just grind away on the pedals until I feel the tension leave me.”
For those around her, the changes in physical health are obvious but thanks to recreation therapy, Mary has also built her emotional and inner strength.
Nowadays, Mary is busy with school and raising her son and still able to bike with Operation Comfort and spend time with other Veterans.
When asked what she would tell other Veterans about recreation therapy, Mary gave a simple but emphatic two word reply: “Do it!”
February is Recreation and Creative Arts Therapy month. Learn more about VA Recreation Therapy at: www.rehab.va.gov/rectherapy
About the authors: Linda Zaiontz, is the chief of Recreation Therapy Service, at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, and Lilli M. Shine, is the chief of Recreation Therapy Service, at Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center