SALISBURY — Navy veteran Jack Fox lost his left leg at the knee back in July, and the wound is probably a few weeks away from being completely healed.
In the months since his surgery, the 80-year-old Fox has relied on a wheelchair, while naturally thinking about a prosthesis.
“I’ll be happy just to walk,” he says at the Hefner VA Medical Center.
Fox had no idea he would be receiving encouragement and important information about artificial limbs from a 13-year-old. But one of Fox’s best friends in recent weeks has been Drew Hastings, an eighth-grader who has volunteered his time at the VA Medical Center since he was 9.
“I’ve enjoyed his company,” says Fox, who has learned a lot about different prosthetic legs from Hastings. The eighth-grader lost his left leg below the knee when he was 7.
“He’s familiar with all that stuff and has been for years,” Fox says.
Hastings volunteers at the VA Medical Center up to three times a week, usually dropping in before or after lunch for several hours. Home-schooled, he roams the halls of Building 42 under the supervision of Dr. Mark Heuser, associate chief of staff for geriatric extended care.
Hastings recently helped Heuser with his pancake breakfast in the dining room at the VA’s new Hospice House. Heuser has been making the breakfast every Monday and Wednesday morning for the past two-and-a-half years.
From the first time he met Drew, Heuser noticed how easy it was for him to relate to veterans dealing with the loss of a limb, or those apprehensive about being fitted and working with a prosthesis.
“He was able to let them know what to expect and what not to expect,” Heuser says.
Heuser became comfortable introducing the veterans to Drew, closing the door and letting him “work his magic,” he says.
Mike Hibler, veterans services officer, adds, “he has turned a lot of people around.”
Veteran Holly Faulkner said the encouragement he received from Hastings with his first prosthesis made him more positive about the whole experience.
“He’s been a good role model for me,” Faulkner says. “He has encouraged me by what he’s done and what he’s been through ... I said, if he can do it, I can do it.”
Elizabeth Hastings, Drew’s mother, says her son tries to follow a process with each veteran faced with losing a limb or preparing for a prosthesis. On his first meeting, he takes his mother along and simply introduces himself.
He later shares his own story about losing his leg in a car accident in July 2007, then brings along a photo album showing all the things he has been able to do with an artificial leg.
With some weight-training this past summer, Drew has become a good-sized 13-year-old, and the photographs show him playing football, basketball and baseball. He also swims and has competed in four triathlons.
“He plants that in their minds — look what I can do with this limb,” Elizabeth Hastings says.
Drew also will bring in his old artificial legs — the ones he has outgrown or plain worn out. The earliest ones show just how little he was, dealing with an amputation. Elizabeth says it often leads the veterans to say, “This tiny kid went through this. I can, too.”
In his visits with the veterans, Drew almost always ends up taking off his prosthesis and, like a salesman, discusses the pros and cons of the various kinds — suction, Velcro or pin-lock.
He often touts the convenience of the pin-lock variety. To remove it, he explains, all you have to do is push a button.
Drew also helps the veterans with the vocabulary they can use to tell doctors exactly how the prosthesis might be pulling or pinching. The confident youngster also has spoken to AMVETS meetings and met with the Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard.
Drew thinks his volunteer hours at the VA’s Community Living Center are part of his heritage. He first came to the VA Medical Center when he was visiting his grandfather, the late Jimmy Gourd, a Marine.
Drew’s great-grandfather served in World War II, and his father, Sgt. Robert Hastings, has 22 years in military service between his 14 years with the Navy and eight years with the Army National Guard.
Most of the veterans he helps initially, Drew says, are down and in a shell about the loss of a limb. He remembers the first veteran he spoke with, and how he finally came around to the idea of a prosthesis.
The man ultimately demanded of the VA staff to “give me a leg.”
“That’s what I come here to do,” says Drew, who since his accident has had 11 different surgeries. After helping that first veteran, Drew says he asked, “When can I do that again? I need to find another person to help.”
Elizabeth Hastings says her oldest son — there’s also 8-year-old William and 6-year-old Emmalee — wants to be a doctor. He already has the bedside manner down pat.
Drew says people sometimes stop him in the halls at the VA and ask if he’s the kid they’ve heard about.
“It’s an incredible feeling to walk into a patient’s room and have them tell me a doctor or nurse already told them about my ministry to help the vets,” Drew says.
He then excuses himself, explaining he has to walk to Building 2.
There’s a veteran friend who had surgery the day before, and he wants to check in.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.