I had heard about Jim, who apparently delivered McDonald's shakes and burgers several times a week. He was one of the angels of Ward 57, a special breed of patrons who brightened up a day otherwise filled with surgery, needles, bad food and pain. The angels usually arrived in the quiet times. Doctors weren't making the rounds. Metal meal wagons had stopped clanking, the traffic of institutional do-gooders from the Red Cross and veterans' groups temporarily halted.
As I would quickly learn, Jim had a feel for combat amputees no doctor could match. He was one of us, having lost both legs to a land mine in Vietnam. He had lived through every stage of recovery and knew what we were enduring beyond the pain: identity crises, loss of self-confidence, and fears about supporting ourselves and attracting the opposite sex. Jim passed along biofeedback tips he called the process "mind f---" for combating the jumble of severed nerve endings called phantom pain. He coached families on the need to validate their loved ones' suffering, pulling them into the hallway for a piece of advice: never tell amputees they should feel lucky to be alive.
He believed in the curing power of humor, especially slapstick. One of his favorite routines was mimicking awkward hospital volunteers who invariably said the wrong thing. When a leg amputee was convulsing in so much pain he couldn't talk, Jim handed him a chocolate shake and a three-by-five-inch index card with a scribbled message: "That will be $5. Bless you." But he mainly used treats to break the ice. After a couple of shakes, amputees were asking questions of the man who walked on two fake legs and worked for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. He was living proof there was life after Ward 57.
By the time I arrived, Jim was delivering a dozen shakes three times a week, a cost he absorbed for months until a group of VA colleagues chipped in for McDonald's gift certificates just before the holidays. About the same time, Jim had befriended a Vietnam vet and Washington restaurateur named Hal Koster, who offered to host Walter Reed patients at his Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse, located in the basement of the downtown Capital Hilton. Jim rounded up transportation and circulated the invitation on 57. Before long, Friday nights at Fran's became a tradition. Koster drew a big enough crowd a few days before Christmas to fill up four tables, amputees wielding steak knives in their hooks and hobbling to the bar on prosthetic legs.
For visitors who were less familiar than Jim Mayer, the ward had a gatekeeper, an odd little man known as Mr. Nick. Sporting silver loops in both ears and wrapping his salt-and-pepper braids into a bun behind his head, 56-year-old James Melvin Nicholas stood out in the crew-cut, uniformed staff. The breast of his white lab coat was smothered in goodwill medals given to him by VIP guests. His accent was effeminate and Mississippian. He held the lowly title of medical support technician. But from behind the nurse's station, where he worked, everyone knew who was in charge.