15 SEP 2007 Air Force Theater Hospital, New shell, same nut
It is a sunny Saturday afternoon here in Balad. This morning I had to ask what day it was. I have already fallen prey to the sand-blind confusion in which one day blends into the next. Every day seems the same and this deployment has picked up just where the last one left off. It has been a very therapeutic morning. I got up around three in the morning, but since I’m bunking in with a friend for a few days, I left the lights off and stayed in my cot, drifting in and out of waking dreams until it was six. I’m staying with B., a trauma PA from the Midwest. He is a great guy, and has been working day in, day out for the past four months taking care of wounded warriors in the intensive care unit. He’s headed back home to the world in a few days and we’re sharing a hooch until I take it over from him. Our hooch is like a small trailer. We have one half of it; another troop has the other half. In between, we share is a small bathroom. I consider the conditions that most of the troops are facing and I know I’m in the lap of luxury.
B. needed his sleep because he had been run ragged in the intensive care unit the night before. We were taking care of a little boy with serious burns. He came to the hospital after he had pulled a pot of boiling water over on himself. Even in a war zone, the dangers on the kitchen can bring misery in the blink of an eye. The crew here had been working tirelessly to keep him alive and had operated on him three times. He was struggling to live in the intensive care unit. He was swollen from head to toe, and his breathing was labored. As his vital signs worsened, the team put in one artificial breathing tube, but it was too small. They asked me to replace it with another, and I was just able to see past the swelling to get the larger tube in. I called for a translator, and J. came to help me talk to the boy’s grandmother. She was tearful, and thanked us. I could see that the team had worked so hard on him and had put so much heart into his care. This was the first day I had seen him, but I could tell it didn’t look good. Sometimes it is harder to see big picture when you have been pouring your heart into fighting for someone’s life. As the night became morning, he worsened. His vital signs failed and he passed away near noon.
It was so hard on us. I felt the same raw feeling as when I lost a little girl in a similar situation two years ago. I may grow numb to the long hours, the horrible wounds, but no amount of time will ever find any sense or reason in the death of a child. It was a shocking reminder of the high stakes at play in our hospital. There had been no joy that night. Around midnight a pregnant woman had been brought to the ER after being shot with an AK-47 in her belly. She was rushed to an emergency operation. Surgeon M. found that the bullet had injured her intestines and then went on to kill the baby growing inside her. If her pregnant womb hadn’t been there, the course of the bullet would have taken it through the large artery in her belly. She would have bled to death in minutes. She will live, and maybe even bear another child. There is no joy in war. I feel myself bracing for worse in the months that come.
So today, I reported to the hospital. When there was no work for me, I set out to clear my mind. I wandered the dusty, gravelly streets I had been over before. I checked the shelves at the Base Exchange and dropped off some uniforms to have my new rank sewn on. I went to the gymnasium. The generator was out, and we exercised in near darkness, shafts of light crossing from the doors propped open with buckets. I lifted weights, counting repetitions, measuring time, calculating how many push-ups I could do before my time here is up. I was pumping iron in the yard. I did my fencing stretches. As I flowed through cycles of sun salutations and watched myself dimly in the mirror, I felt like I could make it. Tomorrow is my first night on call and I hope I’m ready. Balad hasn’t changed much but I’m not sure that I have either.
I got to talk to M. yesterday. Her voice was so sweet in my ears. Closing my eyes, letting her words wash over me, she could have been next to me, her hand on my shoulder. That is enough to carry me through anything.
Until the next phone call,