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Badly burned Marine: a lesson in toughness

Badly burned Marine: a lesson in toughness

Body finally quit; Sgt. German's spirit never did

 

The young Marine came back from the war with his toughest fight ahead of him.

Merlin German waged that battle in the quiet of a Texas hospital, far from the dusty road in Iraq where a bomb exploded, leaving him with burns over 97 percent of his body.

No one expected him to survive.

But for more than three years, he would not surrender. He endured more than 100 surgeries and procedures. He learned to live with pain, to stare at a stranger's face in the mirror. He learned to smile again, to joke, to make others laugh.

He became known as the "Miracle Man."

But just when it seemed he would defy impossible odds, Sgt. Merlin German lost his last battle earlier this spring — an unexpected final chapter in a story many imagined would have a happy ending.

"I think all of us had believed in some way, shape or form that he was invincible," said Lt. Col. Evan Renz, who was German's surgeon and his friend. "He had beaten so many other operations. . . . It just reminded us he, too, was human."

Roadside bomb ignited him

It was near Ramadi, Iraq, on Feb. 21, 2005, that the roadside bomb detonated near German's Humvee, hurling him out of the turret and engulfing him in flames.

When Renz and other doctors at the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio first got word from Baghdad, they told his family that he really didn't have a chance. The goal: Get him back to America so his loved ones could say goodbye.

But when German arrived four days later, doctors, amazed by how well he was doing, switched gears.

"We were going to do everything known to science," Renz said. "He was showing us he can survive."

Doctors removed his burn wounds and covered him with artificial and cadaver skin. They also harvested small pieces of German's healthy skin, shipping them off to a lab where they were grown and sent back.

Doctors took skin from the few places he wasn't burned: the soles of his feet, the top of his head and small spots on his abdomen and left shoulder. Once those areas healed, doctors repeated the task. Again and again.

"Sometimes I do think I can't do it," German said last year in an Associated Press interview. "Then I think: Why not? I can do whatever I want."

Renz witnessed his patient's good and bad days.

"Early on, he thought: 'This is ridiculous. Why am I doing this? Why am I working so hard?' " Renz recalled. "But every month or so, he'd say, 'I've licked it.' . . . He was amazingly positive overall. . . . He never complained. He'd just dig in and do it."

Slowly, his determination paid off. He made enormous progress:

From a ventilator to breathing on his own.

From communicating with his eyes or a nod to talking.

From being confined to a hospital isolation bed with his arms and legs suspended — so his skin grafts would take — to moving into his own house and sleeping in his own bed.

Sometimes his repeated surgeries laid him up for days, and he'd lose ground in his rehabilitation. But he always would rebound. Even when he was hurting, he'd return to therapy — as long as he had his morning Red Bull energy drink.

"I can't remember a time where he said: 'I can't do it. I'm not going to try,' " said Sgt. Shane Elder, a rehabilitation therapy assistant.

That despite the constant reminders that he'd never be the same. The physical-fitness buff who could run miles and do dozens of push-ups struggled, at first, just to sit up on the edge of his bed. The one-time saxophone player had lost his fingers. The Marine with the lady-killer smile now had a raw, ripple-scarred face.

Lt. Col. Grant Olbrich recalled a day in 2006 when he stopped by German's room and noticed he was crying softly. Olbrich, who heads a Marine patient-affairs team at Brooke, said he sat with him for a while and asked: " 'What are you scared of?' He said, 'I'm afraid there will never be a woman who loves me.' "

Olbrich said that was the lowest he ever saw German, but even then "he didn't give up. . . . He was unstoppable."

His mother, Lourdes, remembers her son another way: "He was never really scared of anything."

That toughness, said his brother, Ariel, showed up even when they were kids growing up in New York. Playing football, Merlin would announce: "Give me the ball. Nobody can knock me down."

Collecting new friends

In nearly 17 months in the hospital, Merlin German's "family" grew.

From the start, his parents, Lourdes and Hemery, were with him. They relocated to Texas. His mother helped feed and dress her son; they prayed together three or four times a day.

"She said she would never leave his side," Ariel said. "She was his eyes, his ears, his feet, his everything."

But many at the hospital also came to embrace German.

Norma Guerra, a public-affairs spokeswoman who has a son in Iraq, became known as German's "Texas mom."

She read him action-packed stories at his bedside and arranged to have a DVD player in his room so he could watch his favorite gangster movies.

She sewed him pillows embroidered with the Marine insignia. She helped him collect New York Yankees memorabilia and made sure he met every celebrity who stopped by — magician David Blaine became a friend, and President Bush visited.

"He was a huge part of me," said Guerra, who had German and his parents over for Thanksgiving. "I remember him standing there talking to my older sister like he knew her forever."

German liked to gently tease everyone about fashion — his sense of style, and their lack of it.

Guerra said he once joked: "I've been given a second chance. I think I was left here to teach all you people how to dress."

Even at Brooke, he color-coordinated his caps and sneakers.

"If something didn't match, if your blue jeans were the wrong shade of blue, he would definitely let you know. He loved his clothes," recalled Staff Sgt. Victor Dominguez, a burn patient who said German inspired him with his positive outlook.

German also was something of an entrepreneur. In high school, he attended his senior prom not with a date but with a giant bag of disposable cameras to make some quick cash from those who didn't have the foresight to bring their own.

At Brooke, he designed a T-shirt that he sometimes sold, sometimes gave away. On the front it read: "Got 3 percent chance of survival, what ya gonna do?" The back read: "a) Fight Through, b) Stay Strong, c) Overcome Because I Am a Warrior, d) All of the Above." D is circled.

Every time he cleared a hurdle, the staff at Brooke cheered him on.

When he first began walking, Guerra said, word spread in the hospital corridors.

"People would say: 'Did you know Merlin took his first step? Did you know he took 10 steps?' " she recalled.

German, in turn, was asked by hospital staff members to motivate other burn patients when they were down or just not interested in therapy.

"I'd say, 'Hey, can you talk to this patient?' … Merlin would come in … and it was: Problem solved," said Elder, the therapist. "The thing about him was there wasn't anything in the burn world that he hadn't been through. Nobody could say to him, 'You don't understand.' "

German understood, too, that burn patients deal with issues outside the hospital because of the way they look.

"When he saw a group of children in public, he was more concerned about what they might think," said Renz, his surgeon. "He would work to make them comfortable with him."

Death came on April 11

Merlin German was just 22 when he died on April 11.

He had so many dreams that will go unrealized: becoming an FBI agent (he liked the way they dressed); going to college; starting a business; and even writing comedy.

But he did accomplish one major goal: He set up a foundation for burned children called Merlin's Miracles to raise money so these kids could enjoy life, whether it was getting air conditioners for their homes or taking a trip to Disney World, a place he loved.

Merlin German died after routine surgery to add skin under his lower lip.

He already was planning his next operations — on his wrists and elbows. But Renz said that with all the stress German's body had been subjected to in recent years, "it was probably an unfair expectation that you can keep doing this over and over again and not have any problems."

The cause of his death has not yet been determined.

"I may no more understand why he left us when he did than why he survived when he did," Renz said. "I don't think I was meant to know."

On the net

www.merlinsmiracles.com


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