I took one last look at the blank, cold face of the young soldier before I zipped up the body bag. I shook my head in grief and frustration. His premature death was the result of a careless motor vehicle accident. He could have been anyone in my emergency department back home, but his death here in Iraq, just days before the end of his tour, seemed so pointless. A quarter mile long line of soldiers marched silently behind the dusty ambulance as we escorted the body to the landing zone where a waiting helicopter sat silently in the full moon light. Each man snapped a crisp salute as the flag-draped body was brought through the line and placed aboard the helo for his final trip home. We tried our best to make sense of his loss. “Why are we still doing this?” I asked my colleague and friend as we walked back to the hooch. “The war is over. We won, for heaven’s sake. Isn’t it time for us all to go home?”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m one of the few left who think we did the right thing in coming here in the first place. I saw with my own eyes the killing fields where Sadaam’s henchmen hosed down innocents with machine gun fire before covering their bleeding bodies with a bull dozer. I saw the bones bleaching in the sun as family members tried to identify lost friends and relatives from rotted fragments of clothing. I know we have paid a heavy price in blood and treasure. But all that’s over now, right?
One of my corpsmen was in this region of western Iraq just a few years ago and saw his buddy shot in the neck by a sniper as they patrolled through town. Now we walk through that same town with barely a notice from the locals. These days the Iraqi police and security force are the ones going after the bad guys. They don’t arrest people, read them their rights and put them in jail. They just shoot them, bring their bodies in for the children to see what happens to bad people, and then they post the pictures of their ‘kills’ on the police station wall. Not exactly how we do it in America, but it works.
The Battle of Fallujah is over. I heard they had a 5k race there this year. So what am I still doing here? “I fear when you leave,” my Iraqi colleague told me in confidence one day. “When you leave the fighting will just start all over. ” He was just saying what a lot of people have been thinking. Everyone fears a return of the cancer of violence.
“But we can’t stay over here forever,” I said. “You no longer need us. You’ll be fine. At some point you have to just get back to the job of living.” And what about me? I’ve spent over a year of my life in this hell hole and I’m just tired. I want to go home. Every day I get up and face the same question: what am I going to do today? I want to do something constructive. I read books. I exercise. I want my time here to mean something. But it seems like I spend a lot of time in the ‘horizontal time accelerator’, my bed. The truth is I do a lot of nothing. I just end up killing time.
Pondering this thought the other day I remembered a guy I met one time after a long shift. I had been racing through the entire night seeing patient after patient, ordering stat labs and IV drugs. I thought the stream of patients would never end, but then, all of a sudden, it was gone. Tempting fate, I went out to take a victory lap in what I assumed was an empty waiting room and found an older man sitting quietly in a wheel chair. His thin patches of gray hair and the wasting skin hanging from his face made him seem like a young man in an old man’s body. “How long have you been waiting to be seen?” I asked.
“Oh, hi doc,” he said pleasantly as he looked up. “I didn’t see you. I’m not waiting to get into the ER. I’ve already been there. You treated me, remember?”
I didn’t. Seeing my distress he responded warmly, “You saw me in your ER about sixteen months ago. I came in with a cough and you admitted me to the hospital.”
“Oh,” I said, forgiving my forgetfulness. “I admitted you?” I was incredulous, knowing that I wouldn’t admit someone simply for a cough.
“Well, I was coughing up a little blood, too. So you took a chest X-ray. You were the one who found my cancer.”
Suddenly his face morphed in my mind’s eye and it took my breath away. I did remember him. But he looked like he had aged 20 years since then. I remembered him because his case had caused me to look hard at myself in the mirror. If I was given six months to live, what changes would I make?
“What happened?” I asked. But he understood the implied question considering his prognosis.
“You mean why am I still alive?” he said with a warm smile. “I got healed.”
“Really?” I blurted out, betraying my incredulity.
“Yeah, a lot of prayers plus several rounds of chemo that almost killed me. The doctors told me they found no trace of the cancer any more. They called it a remission, but I called it a healing.”
“Wow, that’s great,” I said slowly, straining to read between the lines. “So what are you doing here now?”
“Well they found a little cancer coming back, so I get chemo.”
Some healing, I thought bitterly. As if reading my mind he chimed in, “Even if it didn’t last forever, at least I was given a chance. And I’m grateful for that.”
“Yeah, a chance to live another day. You know, to do something with my life. It’s like they say, ‘It’s not how long you live, but how you live that makes it a life.’ I want to have an impact on my kids. I want another day to love my wife. I even have a chance to live to 80. But I’ll be happy with two out of three. Remember what you told me? Everyone’s day is 24 hours. Live it. Well here I am. It’s my son’s birthday.”
“So…what are you doing?” I asked again to complete my first question.
“Oh I don’t need the ER anymore. I’m just waiting to go home. What are you going to do today, Doc?”
“Oh, me?” I said looking at myself in the mirror. “I’m not sure.”