November 12th, 2003
It was a day like almost every other day. The sun rose, the daylight came, and thru the majestic date palm trees grouped as silent observers to one of the most historical places on earth, you could see the palaces from all ages. The ruins of Hammurabi’s Babylon, of King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, the distant ruins of the Tower of Babel, all stand as silent reminders of the events of thousands of years of history. And, somewhere beneath us, hidden from modern man, lies one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
On this day, in this famous place along the Euphrates River, the flag rose. The American Flag. And, the Polish Flag, the Romanian Flag, indeed, flags of over 20 countries, who have come together to form the Polish MultiNational Division, responsible at that time for the southern sector of Iraq. A small, American Army medical team, was also located there, for the purpose of assisting the Polish MND with medical expertise, and to serve as the first stop for injured soldiers and civilians. Here was large, olive green dusty tent, set on plywood floors, with old canvas litter carriers as “hospital” beds. When one thinks of a field hospital, the first image that often comes to mind is M.A.S.H., where Col Potter and his group of surgeons, nurses, and technicians worked together in austere conditions to stabilize and treat a wide variety of patients. This Babylonian field hospital was very much the same. There was no running water. Power was supplied by two large generators humming next door. Air conditioning was available if the generators worked, which depended on daily maintenance from soldiers trained as medics, not as mechanics. All of us lived in tents, slept on cots, and made the very best of our conditions, for indeed, though austere to most Americans, the conditions were often better than how the Iraqis lived.
The Marines were the first to arrive in Babylon, during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. They immediately recognized the historical significance of Babylon, and set up security to protect the archeology from looters and insurgents. A fence was set up around the perimeter, and guard towers placed to ensure security. Babylon was safe, or so we thought. During a short run of a few miles, you could see the ruins of its history, some in the original state, others rebuilt in modern times. There was complete freedom to go anywhere, climb, crawl, to see all of the marvelous structures. It was like having a day at Disneyland all by yourself. It was amazing.
So, the morning started as business as usual. Get up, dress into a combat uniform, and stand outside the tent, shaving and taking in the new day. Breakfast was one of our rituals, for psychological survival in these conditions required simple, dependable things one could generally count on. We sat at a plastic table, on plastic chairs, on a makeshift plywood deck constructed with pallets. Overhead, shade was provided by a beautiful canopy, constructed out of camouflage nets. There we sat, and enjoyed a double portion of Frosted Flakes with milk, eaten out of our canteen cups. Coffee was usually good, as the Colonel personally made the coffee, using premium French Roast donated by Starbucks, and the Colonel was quite the cook.
After breakfast, it was time to start “sick call” in our “clinic.” “Sick call” started at 8am, or so, depending on when breakfast was finished, and we took the long 40-yard walk to the tent that served as the “clinic.” But despite the apparent primitive nature of the facility, inside were nearly all the technological marvels needed in any full-scale emergency room in the United States. Next door was another tent that housed the operating room, where two beds, also canvas litters, could handle the full range of trauma surgical operations. Next door to that, was a smaller tent, that housed the X-Ray “Department,” operated by one soldier, and was composed of a simple suitcase-size X-Ray machine controlled and fed into a laptop computer. The table used for the patient was, well you guessed it, another canvas litter. But somehow, it seemed to work.
In our attempts to establish routines, we set up our sick call clinic hours, 7 days a week. But in reality, we were available at all times. We never required someone injured or sick to have to wait until the next day’s clinic ours, because our sole purpose in life there, was to serve these incredible young men and women. Nearby was a dusty open area, used as a heliport for incoming medevac helicopters. Only about 15 minutes flight, or 45 minutes by land, was the main hospital in Baghdad, so if someone needed to stop to see us, that meant the injured soldier could not make it if they went just a little further. Our job was to save lives, to stabilize, then transport these casualties when it was safe to do so to the main hospitals. So, when the call came to us that we had someone “incoming,” we knew it would be serious, and we would have to move quickly.
Unfortunately, we were often quite busy.
On this day, the call came at midday. There had been an attack at a local police station a short distance way from Babylon, and a Polish Security Team was sent in to stabilize the situation. The firefight included mortar attacks, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the term used by the military to describe home-made bombs. Several soldiers had been killed, and several were severely injured. The onsite Commander directed evacuation of the wounded to the best facilities that could treat these injured soldiers, using resources to the maximum efficiency, and so the severely injured were headed in our direction. As they were being transported, their own medics performed basic life-saving measures, and relayed the extent of the injuries as best they could to us so we could be prepared. But you still never knew what to really expect.
The one image I still live with is seeing the olive green military ambulance arriving at our tent, our “hospital.” It came in quickly, pulled to an abrupt stop, with dust flying everywhere. All of us would be standing there, each armed with the instrument of their particular expertise, which in my case, was a stethoscope and a pair of trauma scissors. We donned latex protective gloves, surgical hats, and masks at the ready, for we could be in the operating room in minutes. As the rear doors swung open, the drama would unfold. Being a physician in that setting felt like being on stage, where everyone is looking at you for direction. There was that fear of wondering whether or not you would be good enough to save that person with whatever injury they had, and whether you would make the right decisions on who to treat first. In reality, those standing with you were also professionals, all of whom knew there jobs so well, and had done this so many times already, that they were preoccupied with their own duties. You were trusted to do the right thing, to make the right diagnosis, and to make the right decisions. For these soldiers inside that ambulance, you were all they had, and they trusted you.
There is no way I could describe the many horrors, injuries, disfigurations, smells, sounds, or fear that one might see when those doors opened and litters were pulled out, one by one. No human being can be prepared for that. And no human being should ever have to experience that. It transcends human existence, and there is no training for it. Even our constant exposure to violence in the movies does not come close. In the movies, the man goes down and dies once shot mortally. But in real life, men don’t die so easily.
This day was very much the same. His name was Vasili, or that was the nickname I gave him since I could not pronounce his full name. He was a Polish soldier, recruited onto active duty by the Polish Army specifically for the purpose of joining the war effort in Iraq. He was one of those soldiers lying in pain on one of the litters as it was slid out of the ambulance. He was seriously injured, and like so many others, the next several minutes might determine whether he would ever see his family again. We took him into the tent with the X-Ray machine, so that we could see where all the fragments were located in his body, which would allow us to quickly target the most serious injuries. He was accompanied by a fellow soldier, whose primitive broken English selected him as our translator.
There are times where introductions are unnecessary. This was one of those times. He knew what I was there for, and I knew what he was there for. I gave him some morphine to ease the pain, while others attended to preparing him for surgery. It was the hum of a well trained team. The X-Ray would only take minutes, and then he would be moved into the next tent which served as the operating room. As he was nearly ready, he looked into my eyes, and I could see the pleading in his eyes. In very broken English, he said to me, “Please save me.” I wanted to respond with something noncommittal, like “I’ll try”…or “I’ll do my best….” but as that ancient sage Yoda once said… “Do or not do. There is no try.” This man did not want to hear me waffle on this one. I quickly, almost instinctively responded to him, “I will.” The next thing he did changed me forever. He reached up and removed his dog tags from around his neck and handed them to me, as if he was placing his life in my hands. On the chain was a simple metal cross, together with his pair of dog tags. The emotions I felt at that moment are nearly impossible to describe, but there was this incredible sense of awe of the trust and faith he placed in my hands.
Fear next began to grip me. What if I failed him? I had lost a soldier only days earlier in my hands on the operating table, and now I felt guilty that I was bold enough to make a promise that was only partially in my hands. If my faith in God were to be tested, this would be the time. I put his dog tags and his cross around my neck, and we moved him into the operating room. As he was being put to sleep, I got down on my knees right there in that room next to him, and prayed to God to guide my hands that day and help me. I had never down that in surgery before. Why it never occurred to me to do so, I’ll never know.
The surgery seemed to last all day, but in reality, was only about 2 hours. His bleeding was stopped, most of the fragments removed, and he was back in one piece. Now came that moment of truth, one every surgeon fears after a serious operation. Would he wake up. Another eternity passed for me, and thoughts of what I would say to his family preoccupied my mind. In almost every other surgery I had performed back home, the family would be waiting for me to come out and give them the news. Not here. This was between me and him. No one else. Tears came to my eyes as I watched him slowly open his, and in an instant, he knew from my eyes that he was okay. He was going to do just fine.
A short time later, after he had been moved to another small tent which served as the recovery room, I went in to visit him. His fellow soldier was there, and I tried to explain to them what I had found and what was done. I’m not sure that he understood the words, but he understood what I was trying to communicate. With God’s divine help, I had lived up to my promise. I reached around my neck and removed his dog tags and cross, and began placing them around his neck, but he stopped me. Clumsily, he removed his cross from the chain, and handed it to me. I removed my own dog tags, and placed his cross on my chain, and put it back on. Within a few short hours, Vasili was gone, now stable, transported to Baghdad for recovery, and eventual transport back to Poland. I never saw him again. He had done his duty, and his effect on me was something he would never realize.
I never removed that cross from my neck. It became my personal reminder of what my faith in God meant to me, and I vowed to keep it always close to me. Once I returned home, that simple metal cross was replaced by a gold one, but it remains around my neck to this day. And, from that day on, I would pray the Prayer of Jabez before every surgery:
And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain." So God granted him what he requested.
I Chronicles 4:10 NKJV
Miracles happen every day. I guess we only have to keep our eyes out for them.