Romeo is a 15-year-old Filipino boy who was one of the first patients brought onto the Peds

ward on the USNS Mercy. He stood out among the 30+patients we had on the ward as he had the biggest smile on his face. Most of the other patients were much more timid in their interactions as they were all waiting to have surgery. Romeo was just happy to be moving about the ward in a wheelchair. This was the first time in the past 7 years he was able to move about on his own without having to depend on other people. When Romeo was nine-years-old he was injured in a bomb blast when his village in rural Mindanao was caught up in the fighting between rival factions. His legs were so badly burned in the blast that scar tissue prevented him from straightening his left leg more than 90 degrees; his Right leg was also scarred but in addition had suffered significant injury to the nerves so that his right foot drooped down. His legs had atrophied (the muscles had shrunken) so badly that they are about the same size as my forearms. For the last seven years he has been unable to walk, and his father has carried him around. When his father wasn’t around to carry him, he crawled around using his hands. Now realize that I’m talking about crawling around on dirt/mud floors as they do not have tile/carpeting or other niceties we are used to. He was totally dependent on other family members to take care of him.

As Romeo has gotten older, he has gotten too big for his father to carry; in addition, his father also worked during the daytime. His father is only a bit over 5 feet and is smaller than I am. I can’t imagine carrying Romeo around all day. When Romeo’s family heard that the USNS MERCY hospital ship was coming to Mindinao, they came to the surgical prescreening clinic to so if we could help Romeo walk again. His case was accepted and an Orthopedic and Plastic surgeon decided to cut away the scar tissue that bound Romeo’s leg like webbing and replace it with a large skin graft taken from his back. His father had asked the orthopedic surgeon if his son would ever be able to ride his bicycle again- like he had before the bomb blast. The surgeon told his father that there was a remote chance that Romeo may be able to ride a bike and perhaps even stand on his own – although he doubted Romeo would be able to walk more than a few steps at a time. Despite the uncertainty, Romeo’s father agreed to the surgery and then left Romeo in the care of the USNS Mercy as he needed to get back to work to continue to support his family. Romeo’s sister remained with him for the remainder of his hospital stay.

Surgery went well but having a large area of skin removed from one’s back is a rather painful proposition. Romeo tolerated the pain and discomfort well with few complaints. A few days after Romeo’s surgery, Romeo was brought to Physical Therapy where he first underwent passive and active stretching of his legs. This appeared to be even more painful than the skin graft he had already undergone but Romeo was determined. He underwent PT twice a day and soon was able to stand and then walk with the assistance of crutches for the first time since the explosion. A few days later, Romeo was able to climb up on an exercise bike. Initially his legs were so weak that they had to tie his feet to the pedals but in no time, he rode that bike like he was competing in the Tour de France! Romeo was amazing- his smile just got bigger and bigger with each new accomplishment. The Physical Therapist wanted to demonstrate the safest way to attempt to navigate stairs knowing full well that he probably would need to work on this skill sometime in the coming months. Romeo was not satisfied to learn climb/descend stairs but he then proceeded to negotiate his way around the ship including a trip up to the flight deck to visit the helocopters and sit in the cockpit with the pilots and mechanics. They gave him a unit patch and that young man wore it with pride. Romeo slept with that Helo squadron patch on his shirt and only took it off to transfer to a clean shirt!

A message was sent to his father to have him come back to the ship to see Romeo as it had been about 10 days since he had boarded the ship and Romeo was anxious to go home. His father was able to come and he watched with his daughter as Romeo was wheeled into the Physical Therapy department. Tears streamed down their cheeks as he watched his son first stand with his crutches and then walk the length of the department. Romeo was soon showing off his ability to ride the stationary bike to an emotional father. This ability to mobilize with the assistance of crutches translates into Romeo’s chance to do things on his own -- to go to school, work, play with friends, grow up and raise a family. None of this would have been

possible otherwise. His father shook our hands and hugged us all, then looked into my eyes and said “Salamat Po” (a sincere thank you in Taglog). But the work of the USNS Mercy was not over…. One of the line officers had been watching Romero.

This officer was deeply touched by Romeo’s story and would stop by the Physical Therapy department to monitor Romeo’s progress – he watched the determination and ever-positive attitude Romeo displayed with the medical team despite the pain he experienced with his physical therapy sessions and for several hours afterwards. Soon there was a small group of people that started hanging out on the Peds ward with Romeo – watching movies, playing cards, singing/playing the guitar, etc. Just hanging out like normal teens do. Knowing how much Romeo had previously enjoyed riding a bike when he was young, this officer was determined to figure out a way to obtain a bike for Romeo. Now unlike the US, this is no small feat to accomplish especially given the terrorist threats and overall difficulty in obtaining any kind of supplies here especially as an American. Through a series of interactions (most of which I’d rather not know the details), a “new bike” and a bike pump was obtained and presented to Romeo. This time there wasn’t a dry eye in the room as a beaming Romeo sat tall on his new bike and with the assistance of the Physical therapists started pedaling down the ship’s corridors. It was an amazing site to see that first day and he has only continued to progress over his remaining days on the ship. Romeo was well on his way of becoming the ship’s mascot and local celebrity on the ship. As part of his physical therapy, Romeo took a walk up to Captain Wiley’s stateroom and met with the Commodore as well as various other locations that most of us have never been able to go! Despite the “celebrity status” Romeo remained very soft spoken and always appreciative of everyone who had helped him achieve this new level of independence--- Romeo left the ship with the chance for a better life ahead of him but Romeo had touched many of us on the USNS Mercy with his quiet presence and wonderful smile….. we were sorry to see him leave but he so wanted to go home to be with his family and friends waiting for him back in his village – and be able to show them that he was now able to stand, walk with crutches and ride a bike, his new bike. I will try to send pictures as it was a truly inspirational story- currently limited on photo size right now. .