Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Sad Day for the Polish and Americans

Today was the worst day for casualties that anyone can remember. Five Polish soldiers were killed in an IED attack on the highway. The EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) crew said that it must have been planted weeks ago before the ground froze, and the insurgents may have been waiting for Christmas time to detonate it for maximum effect. By the time they got to us, none of them had heartbeats.

I helped them place of the soldiers in a body bag. I won't describe it except to say that even his crewmates couldn't recognize him, and it was disturbing even for those of us who work in battlefield trauma bays. When you're praying for the U.S. soldiers, take a moment to include the Polish ones and their families as well.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Just Trauma, No Drama

People told me about the "wall." It's that time 3-4 months into deployment where you are off the high of things being new and exciting and you just hate life and each day drags on. I have been steadfastly denying the existence of such a thing, because it reminded me of people saying things like "once you go through med school you'll stop caring about people's suffering," and "after a few years of marriage you'll get tired of each other, just wait..." (Thanks, Debbie Downer, for the insights but guess what? Dr. Wilde still suffers from a serious case of the hots for Jen. The whole "first year's jellybean jar" thing? Fuhgettaboudid)

I am still practicing denial about the wall, but I think I did put my foot through the screen door this weekend. I have been working all week to finish the shelving in the Lyons Den so when one person wants to make a snack, they don't have to feel sheepish about interrupting the movie that's going on in the same 10ft by 10ft room.

I had this crazy idea that when I finished the shelving and countertops, I would get to put things where I think they should go. I built the spicerack only four inches deep, so it wouldn't jut into your face like in the old room. It had this fanstasy of putting spices at eye level (instead of the 7-foot shelf like before), and using the Szegedi paprika Jen sent me to make my favorite dish in the whole world, chicken paprikash.

I measured the space for the microwave, the toaster oven, cut holes for the cords, meticulously cut vinyl flooring to use as a cleanable countertop and shelving surface. I constructed a slide-down curtain from a tarp, to cover everything up in case we need to use the room for a mass casualty. Saturday at 1130pm, I called it a day.

By 10am Sunday, I had already missed my chance at claiming my turf. What adorned the the spice rack? Five kinds of creamers and twenty flavors of coffee. The space for the toaster oven? A kettle full of coffee already brewed. My pitiful attempt at indignant defiance was to place my one little can of paprika by the sugar before heading to church.

Church #1: Protestant services. Four of us from the FST (two Mormons, one Baptist from Compton, one Methodist from Tennessee) make up the choir. We use a projector to let everyone know the words to sing during the eclectic mix of hymns and contemporary worship songs. Today, we couldn't find the projector, the nurse who usually sets it up gets called in to take care of a patient, and when we do find it there is no extension cord. I run from the chapel to the FST to get one while the preacher stalls by asking, "all right, I know there are some MORE prayer requests...let's hear them..." The songs some twenty minutes late.

I have time after practicing for our New Year's program to grab a quick lunch of disappointing honey-sausage taquitos (yes, they are as unappetizing as they sound) before Church #2: LDS services. Jared and I give the sacrament to each other and watch the Christmas Devotional. We don't get to hang out aftewards and sing Christmas hymns like last week because we get called back to the FST to meet some Lieutenant Colonel Whatshisface who is our new commander in Bagram that we will never see again. Salutes, speeches, gladhanding, blahblahblah. I am glad to be a lowly Captain that has no leadership responsibilities whatsoever, so I slip out.

1600: maybe the day will turn around. It's time to practice my favorite Christmas song, O Holy Night. We missed practicing the last two Saturdays because of traumas coming in, so I really want to get our little quartet together to work on the harmonies (or harnomies, as Jen's family likes to quote from a movie I don't know). But this is a no-go because the Polish are setting up for evening mass. Their musician pulls out a flesh-colored sphere that is uncomfortably reminiscent of female anatomy and jokes "five dollars to touch." Not the uplifting experience I was hoping for.

So I decide that darn it, I'm going to practice O Holy Night by myself in the iso-shelter (a medical container pod no one is in 23.5 hours of the day) because I love the song so much. I get through two verses when Ryan, who is my best friend here, comes in to restock the books for United Through Reading, where you videotape yourself reading children's books and send the disc to your kids. I step out to use the restroom, only to remember that all port-o-potties within half a mile have been removed because they are changing companies this weekend. By the time I walk through the 30 degree air my fingers and spirit have lost all enthusiasm at practicing the song on guitar.

I make the mistake of noticing Paprika's Last Stand was a losing battle; it is back in the old room.

So I eat dinner and do the only thing I know how to do when I am bitter and irritable and feeling anti-social. I take a nap.

I feel much better now, and talk myself through my emotions. I do not hate the world, I do not hate people in general. I don't hate coffee drinkers. I built the shelves for everyone to enjoy, and 20 of the 22 of us drink coffee, so it makes sense to put it on the low shelves and countertops. I do not hate the Sabbath Day or the people worked on moving the food over while I was at church. I should be happy that they took the initiative and helped out instead of waiting for me to do it.

I don't hate patients, projectors, extension cords, Polish musicians with portable silicone mammary glands, my best buddy Ryan, children's books, or people who don't appreciate the difference between sweet Szegedi paprika and cheap McCormick peppery paprika, and the reasoning behind four inch shelves.

I am simply having a bad day because I (can't) sleep fifty feet away from the helicopter pad, live my life within 1 square dust-covered mile, have not seen a healthy plant in three months, can't help my wife change diapers, and feel bad that my daughter asked Santa for a "transporter to Afghanistan" so she can visit me for Christmas and not have to cry when she misses me.

So, after my nap, I am awake at 2:47 am recounting the good things of the day: We haven't been rocketed recently, I am safe, family at home still loves me, God is there, the internet works today and I can read emails from my family, Jen sent me the volleyball I wanted for Christmas, they had provologne cheese at the cafeteria today (so I can make pizza this week), one of the Polish medics brought me two pieces of frozen chicken to make Paprikash with, and one of the techs shared his wife's cookies with me. And our trauma bay sat empty the entire day. So it was a good day after all.

Still trucking,

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hump Day!

Today was my halfway point. Three months down, three to go. The actual date I leave isn't really known yet, but it was still kind of a symbolic milestone. Because today had a little bit of everything in it, and was a good sample of "A Day in the Life of Matt in Afghanistan."

0900: Local Afghan Clinic. Busiest day since I've been here: 139 patients, all seen by one doctor. Recent orders came down that I can't see non-trauma patients as a provider of medicine, so I took blood pressures and sorted pills for the Afghan doctor. Two of the nurses, Melissa and Amy, help me make hygiene kits with toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, washcloth, soap and lotion to pass out to patients on their way out.

1115: radio call comes out that a wounded soldier is coming. We walk quickly from the clinic 1/2 mile to the trauma unit.

Am I crazy yet, or did I just see a goat on base? Apparently capturing a goat is the Army's way of telling the Navy they are going to beat them in football today. No time try to make sense of that now, so I continue back to the trauma bay. Only one patient with a minor injury. Ryan, the other anesthesiologist, was on call and took him to the operating room.

Mail has come in the mean time. Pretty darn good day: 17 boxes! Yes! Can't wait to open them when I have some time. Some goodies for me, lots of donations for the clinic. But now I have to get ready for the next event of the day.

1300: It was Denise's birthday, which we celebrated at FOB Ghazni's only alternative to the cafeteria, "Oasis." It is and Indian restaurant with some Afghan influence. Like Tex-Mex, only...Indiafghan? I had the the tandoori chicken, and garlic naan. Pretty good eating for $7 a plate.

Yes, those are facial tissues being used for napkins. As soon as our food is served, another radio call "FST all, report to duty station." We quickly box our food and prepare the trauma bay again. Three casualties, one of them in shock from and IED blast. He gets a breathing tube placed, a chest tube on each side, and lots of blood, then to the OR. But he keeps oozing blood. Nothing beats warm, freshly drawn blood from healthy volunteers with plenty of platelets.

I took this picture 2 minutes and 39 seconds after the call for a blood drive over the public address system.

By 5 minutes, I counted 80 people with this patient's blood type lined up to give blood. You can see people running to us to give blood. This is the kind of response you get when people hear there is a fellow soldier is in trouble. Luckily we only needed a few units of blood, but we thanked them all for coming.

1730: patient stabilized and transferred to Bagram. Time to clean up the trauma bay and OR.

1800: move furniture, entertainment center, and TV into our new building so we can watch a movie for Denise's birthday. Connect wires, and drill hole through walls for TV wire so we can watch college football after the movie.

1845: I sneak off to the iso-shelter, take the toaster oven with me, and make clandestine chocolate chip cookies with the hand mixer and ingredients my wife and sisters have sent me. This is a bit of a risk, because this is where the blood drive took place, and since Denise is the nurse in charge of blood transfusion, she's liable to come in and look at records or something. I give Caitlin, another nurse, strict orders to keep Denise occupied whatever it takes.

1925: Ding! Birthday cookie checklist: Surprise? Check. Denise has no idea that I even had ingredients. Warm cookie smell emanating from plate? Check. Milk to go with cookies? Check. Time to go create some magic. "You made WHAT!? How?" Pretty sure I gained some leverage in the friendly turf battle Denise and I have had over what to do with the space in the new building (she wants yoga space, the guys want some gym equipment). And yes, I make baking cookies manly, because I did it while wearing a 9 mm pistol in the middle of a war zone.

2000: Movie time. Denise has been asking for weeks to watch "Elf." I persuade the guys that for her birthday, even college football can wait a little bit. It is the first movie to be seen in the new building we have been working very hard on.

2140: Man time. This is a special, almost sacred time where a few men get together with football playing in the background and discuss what construction projects need to happen next. Internet cable for the Wii for sure, we'll need some state flags and sports banners, maybe a neon beer sign for the new lounge. We'll need to barter our extra heating units for some more flooring material, build some benches, fix the sliding door, and so forth. Of course, these important isuues are best discussed with drill and hammer in hand, even though it's late and we have no intention of using the tools anymore tonight. Years of rich man tradition dictates that the one holding the measuring tape gets his turn to talk, and it would be a serious breach of etiquette to interrupt him until he puts it down.

2230: Family is getting their morning started back home, so time to Skype and see what Jen and the kiddoes are up to. Jen is taking Maya to the Nutcracker, then making cookies, then bringing them to the church Christmas party, all while battling a cold. Maya showed me her new cookie book she got from Olivia, Luke is playing Frogger with horribly chapped lips, and Seth bounced around a lot excitedly and says some things that are very important, if unintelligible.

0000: Midnight, past my bedtime. But if I don't blog the day now, I'll forget it tomorrow.

0056: OK, seriously time to go to bed. Good night, Ghazni. I'm on the downhill slope of the deployment now, because Hump Day is in the books!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Milestones and Reflections

I went to a change-of-command ceremony for the Route Clearance Patrol unit at FOB Ghazni. This is the sapper unit that clears bombs from roads in Afghanistan. Their commander was relieved by his replacement on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Dec 7th. I respect this commander a lot because he is always there to support any of his soldiers that come our way. I've had him hold pressure on wounds, tape IVs in, cut off bloody uniforms, etc. (When you are in my trauma bay, I don't care who you are. There is a bleeding soldier and I need your hands. I've drawn some sideways looks by asking the commander of the entire base to help carry a litter. I felt vindicated when he thanked us later for letting him "be with my guys.")

This unit has cleared 19,000 km of roads, been the victim of over 50 explosives and 39 firefights. One of these firefights was an Taliban ambush of 120 against their own 30, in which all of the US soldiers survived. You can see in the background the Afghan National Army unit being trained to someday clear roads on their own.

The outgoing commander acknowledged the generals, colonels, and command sergeant majors briefly, and then spent over 3 minutes of his 10-minute speech thanking the FST (Forward Surgical Team, my unit). This was a touching surprise, as we are usually the embarassing Air Force stepchild on the Army base, because we do things like sport mohawks for a few hours, and shoot stuffed animals at the range. But there is sort of a special bond between our units: they appreciate us fixing them up when they are hurt, and we really appreciate them going out everyday to face hidden explosives.

Even more welcome and unexpected was some news about one of his soldiers. The blood on my "boots" came from a soldier belonging to this unit (see Sep 29 entry and as did three other fallen soldiers pictured earlier in this blog. I learned that PFC Menard is not only still alive, but sits up in a chair, motions for his glasses to look at pictures, and will soon have his tracheostomy (tube in his neck to help him breathe) removed and start speech therapy. I lost count of how many times this hero's heart stopped, and somehow fought back into a rhythm again. But it was at least 6 or 7 just during his time here.

This made my day.

As I near the midpoint of my deployment on Dec 10th ,my thoughts also turned to Sgt Lyons, ("Sacrifice, Oct 26, whom we were not able to save. I still grieve for him and his family, and still admire his bravery for choosing a job as dangerous as his.

We are almost finished constructing a new building to expand the amount of patients we can take in the event of a mass casualty. I say "we" because the contractors built the structure but my team has to build the walkway and finish the inside. I cut the last of the flooring material today, and hope to glue it down tomorrow and start building shelving units next week. I have proposed to my team that we call it "Lyons' Den."

Monday, December 5, 2011

"Big Brother"

In earlier, less realistic times, I had made the life goal of one day running a marathon. That is not going to happen. I am, however, training for a half marathon in January. Our executive officer is about as crazy as my sister Sarah and her husband Garrett when it comes to running: running less than 6 miles is a bad day, acceptable is at least 10. She has been my running coach, asking me every day what time we're going to run, how long, etc. I've learned that I have to be decisive and firm about setting limits because I have to quit after about 6 miles, and then she'll just run in place next to me, looking at me like, "ready to start running again?"

No, Dana, that's all I have. You go ahead, knock yourself out with 6 more miles in 40 degree weather. I'm done.

I was taught in cultural awareness training back home that the men here respect womanhood and value respectful distance during interaction with any female, fearful of insulting her honor and reputation. I'm sure my teachers are correct, but Dana and I sometimes have a different experience when we run. All of which is an unnecessarily long introduction into the events of today.

Today was especially bad. There were 6-8 local men sitting on top of a cargo truck sitting quietly. As we jog past, they all stare unabashedly at her and point and holler like they just saw Elvis. It was as if seeing a redhead in shorts was some kind of visual catnip for them and they just went nuts! I couln't help it. This is not how real men act towards a woman. I stopped in my tracks, turned around, removed my sunglasses and looked right back at them. "Is there a problem?" I hollered back, in a tone that I hope conveyed my annoyance clearly (I was feeling pretty brave because I know Afghan civilians are searched for weapons before coming on base, and there was a group of US soldiers across the street, each of them carrying an M-16 or larger weapon). They immediately looked away, and pointed to a pretend object in the opposite direction, as if to convince me that what they were *really* looking at was a dust-covered hill that they somehow just became aware of in all its drab brown majesty. Whatever, guys, I don't speak your language but I'm a man and I know a cat-call when I see it.

Nodding to them as if to say, "Yeah...that's what I thought!" I turned around and kept running. They had disappeared by the next lap.

Probably the least culturally sensitive thing I've done since I've been here, but I'd do it again tomorrow in a heartbeat.

The Kids