Encountering a Hero

A Professional Development Assignment Turns out to Become so Much More for PT Student Yosef Borenstein, Whose Interview with Veteran John Devine Was Picked up by the VA-NY

January 15, 2016
American Veteran John Devine, who became an amputee while serving as a Marine in Vietnam.

Every first-year PT student takes a Professional Development course in his or her first semester, in which they are given an assignment to interview a senior citizen. The purpose, explains Professor Shira Weiner, is “to emphasize the many facets of psychosocial interactions surrounding an intergenerational relationship, and to allow students to practice the skills needed to elicit useful information from another person, as this is an important component of the clinical encounter.”

But these lessons were just the tip of the iceberg for PT student Yosef Borenstein, who was “deeply inspired” when he chose to interview Mr. John Devine, a Marine Corps veteran who received a Purple Heart and Navy Commendation for his service in the Vietnam War.

As a teenager, Mr. Devine was an athlete and swim champion"his whole life ahead of him," describes Yosef in his essay. At age nineteen, he joined the Marine Corps, was flown to Vietnam, and then suddenly—only twenty-six days after he was deployed—he became an amputee from the war. “He had to learn everything over again, from walking, to what he’s going to do for the rest of his life." But Mr. Devine, Yosef learned, didn’t let this stop him—he told his mother, the first time she saw him after he returned home: “Mom, no more crying—the crying is over with. I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I’m going to pull it off. The only tears from here on will be tears of joy.” Not only did he begin walking again, but also took up skiing, bowling, harmonica, ukulele, golf, and, yes, swimming competitively.  He only used a wheelchair once in his life—during a 1986 Vietnam Veterans street parade. He’s visited Walter Reed/Bethesda about forty times to speak, and give encouragement to, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The interview definitely made me understand the life of an amputee better, and the extreme challenges they face,” said Yosef, reflecting on the experience. “It’s not always the disability itself that’s most challenging; sometimes it’s facing the crowd again…for example, I was surprised to hear that when he began swimming competitively for the first time again, the hardest part wasn’t swimming with one leg, it was getting from the car to the pool while everyone was staring.”

“As PTs, we focus so much on the physical part that sometimes we don’t remember the emotional part—that yeah, we want to get you to walk again, but we have to be sympathetic to the fact that the emotional challenges are there, too," Yosef continues.

So, how did this PT student—himself a young, married father of three—meet the veteran?

It all started with an early morning run along the FDR. “For the assignment, I was looking for someone very unique, with a story I wouldn't have typically encountered. As I passed the VA-NY Harbor Medical Center, I saw a few older-looking veterans sitting around, with a bunch of medals on their uniforms. The idea popped into my head that one of these veterans would be perfect for my assignment. I thought…’Why not ask one of them?’”

Yosef walked into the Public Relations office, introducing himself and the assignment. “I have just the hero for you,” the representative told him. And a version of the interview, which lasted almost two hours, is now featured on the VA website.

“It was an amazing, inspiring experience that I will never forget,” said Yosef.