This story was corrected on April 24, 2014. An explanation follows the story.
The phone call Claudia Avila got on Dec. 27, 2011, was from Army officials telling her that her husband was in critical condition and might not survive.
Claudia’s husband, Army Capt. Luis Avila, lost a leg and suffered a brain injury from a makeshift bomb in Afghanistan during his fifth wartime deployment.
“He is a miracle. My husband is really a miracle,” Claudia Avila said.
For 18 months, Luis Avila could not eat anything orally. He had a feeding tube to provide the nutrition he needed. He could not speak. He could not see.
Avila’s miracle recovery did not happen overnight. It was a two-year road of rehabilitation.
After the accident, he was transferred to Landhaus, Germany, then Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
On July 20, 2012, he was moved to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
According to doctors, Avila’s case was complex.
“Fixing my husband has been from the head to the toe,” Claudia Avila said.
With his wife’s help, Luis Avila explained what happened to him and his team.
“I got blown off in a mountain. ... (A) few of our guys died, and I survived. ... Before I passed out, I took one of the guys out,” he said.
Claudia said music therapy reinforces her husband’s speech and breathing rehabilitation.
Through music and repeating words that his therapist sings along on the piano, Luis Avila can speak again.
The therapy program is offered at Walter Reed, in a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts in collaboration with the American Music Therapy Association. The program has a board-certified therapist with training in the use of music, instruments, songwriting, interpretation and rhythmic motor movement to help patients heal.
The American Music Therapy Association in Silver Spring published a report on March 3 that talked about the profession of music therapy, focusing on both active-duty service members and veterans.
Luis Avila said music therapy has been a “therapeutic therapy” that addressed his daily physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs.
“I provide treatment for a wide variety of diagnosis including mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), psychological health conditions, and aspects of speech and communication,” wrote music therapist Julie Garrison in an email.
The therapy is available to all active-duty military, retirees and dependents receiving care at Walter Reed. In the first full year of music treatment, there were approximately 532 patients. This number is expected to triple by December 2014.
Garrison said patients can choose a song, play and write music.
“However, since there is one music therapist on base at this time, referrals are triaged according to duration of medical and/or rehabilitation and diagnostic needs,” she wrote.
According to Garrison, music can lead the patient to relax, rest, influence breathing and show emotions.
“I sing, I practice, I listen to Julie and my therapy always provides the communication that I’ve been dreaming to have since my injury,” said Luis Avila, who is from San Antonio, but now lives in Bethesda.
Two years ago, doctors told Claudia her husband could die at any minute.
On Dec. 31, 2011, Luis was taken to Landhaus, Germany, where Claudia saw her husband for the first time after the accident. Luis had had a heart attack and a stroke and his brain was deprived of oxygen.
“When I got there ... [doctors said], ‘We need to brief you first’ and I said, ‘No. You flew me all the way from Texas to see my husband. You can brief me later. Let me see my soldier, so he can know I am here. ... Let me touch him and then we will talk,’” she recalled.
With Claudia’s care and devotion and a team of doctors, Luis’ vital signs got better and he got stronger.
When he was transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in January 2012, he was still in a coma. Doctors told Claudia that, after 30 days on life support, the family needed to decide whether to turn off the machines.
Claudia pushed back against that possibility and tended to her husband.
“I started to play music. Every single thing, he liked it. From salsa to classic. If you ask those nurses, I think I was driving them nuts. ... I was like, ‘Please don’t turn it off. ... Don’t touch his music. Don’t touch the sound of our kids,” Claudia said.
She noticed movement in her husband’s face, as if he were trying to say something. She told his primary doctor, who said they were only reflex movements.
“I said [to the doctor], ‘Listen, if I have to tell you one more time that those are not reflex [movements], that he is trying to wake up and he needs help, I am going to be very mad at you. So, I am warning you that I need help,’” she said.
At this point in the interview, Luis interrupted his wife and said “the videos” as a reference to their children’ videos. He said he remembers them.
Army Col. Politowicz, who asked that his first name not be used, was deployed five times, but did not want to talk about his war service. As a consequence of his time in the war, he suffers from a loss of vision and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Politowicz said the ticking of the clock or the piano’s lower sounds would cause him to feel distressed. So, Garrison would play only on the right side of the piano.
Politowicz, who has been receiving music therapy treatment since January, said that because of music therapy, he can focus and do simple tasks, like read.
“My brain was not functioning well ... and to see where I was and where I am, it is absolutely amazing,” Politowicz said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Claudia Avila’s reaction when she was told to consider taking her husband off life support.