This is the first of several associated posts from one flight almost 10 years ago. I’ve shared this before, but it just occurred to me that this blog was a better medium.
Note: In going back, I realized May 28th fell on a Monday that year. I sat down as soon as I could when I wrote this, so my days might have been off. The actual events took place May 26th. Aside from this note for clarification and the title of this post, everything will remain unchanged.
Sometimes, there are warnings about the material that follows – disclaimers of “If you are sensitive to disturbing imagery, do not proceed”. It seems that the reader is hooked at that point and rarely, if ever, heed the cautions and proceeds out of curiosity, only to find out halfway through, that they really didn’t want to know that much. By then, it is too late, and only the very sensitive can really stop reading.
Consider that your warning.
My routine for duty finds me up early every day, inspecting the aircraft for the next duty cycle. I’d gotten more sleep than usual the night before – mostly because my reservoir is running low, and mostly because I was in my usual mode of anticipation all night for the inevitable call at 3 am. Such was not the case, however, and my 4am wake up was only out of paranoia that the radio by the bed had silently dropped its charge during the night. So it was during this period of routine inspections that I found myself wondering if Iraq was changing me in ways so subtle I would not notice…
The call came shortly after. Point Of Injury. We never like hearing any calls on the radio, but that one we dread. Too many unknown variables. Too many possibilities. Nothing to do but respond, adding to my response a request for the Medic to grab my weapon on her way out to the bird and automatically start getting ready. We’re off not long after that, with the info that there are several “urgent surgical” litter patients waiting. Out of habit, I ask for latex gloves – this doesn’t sound good.
Everything runs together up to when we land, then it becomes quite clear. An IED. A crater in a divided highway. She’s out almost at the same time I am – she to intercept the four guys sprinting to the bird with a litter, me to watch her back and look for threats everywhere else. I see the first guy loaded on the bottom litter – torn clothes, but little blood. The second is loaded while I have my back turned – the trees and buildings in front of the bird worry me… everything around is regarded with careful suspicion. She is on my side when the third guy is being loaded in the back – the handles of the litter are keeping her from closing the door. I wave her in and we coax the door closed by shifting the litter just enough.
“CPR.” We haven’t even taken off and she’s checked the bottom guy already. Damn she’s quick, but for good reason. I can see blood on the litter pan below him. I’ve clipped my push-to-talk clicker on the left side of my vest since I can’t stand hunting for it when I need to talk. I let the pilots know we’re both busy and I start chest compressions kneeling and hunched over awkwardly in the little space between the upper pan and the bottom guy. I’ve known how to do CPR since ’88, but I’ve never had to do it. Still, it comes naturally –push, push push… all the while, she is trying to get air into him. We’ve been back in the air for what seems like a minute.
The guy above me is coughing, his face is bloody, and I’ve already let her know. His right arm, however, is above my left shoulder as I do compressions and is getting in my way. We switch after 60 and I check on the guy above, quickly. Still coughing, but coughing requires breathing. I quickly try to reposition his arm. My helmet is full of talking. I’m talking.
“Get the pulse ox on him”
“Hang in there… keep fighting…”
“…we’ll wait for you…”
“It’s not reading right”
“We need to go. Now.”
She’s not talking now, just busy. I don’t see her directly – I’m back to compressions and trying to remember if I was on 5 or 12. I just see her knees as she shifts around, bagging, suction, pulse. I couldn’t get a pulse because mine was way too strong. But I didn’t miss that even through the latex, his forearm felt cold.
I see blood. It’s seeping from underneath the pan towards my left knee. It’s on my boot somehow. My cord is in it. I keep going on compressions, stopping long enough to tell the pilots “We need to go faster.”
The upper guy must be doing “better”, he’s grabbing at the flap that covers the pens on my left sleeve. She takes over again and I check the guy up top.
She hands me the suction.
“It’s on still?”
I sweep the tube around in his mouth, but no blood is coming through it. Good.
“Keep fighting… don’t quit… almost there…”
She hears me yelling over the noise of the helicopter and looks up, confused. I gesture that I’m talking to the guy on the upper pan and she goes back to compressions. We switch again, by now, my vision is blurred by the sweat that has collected on my visor as I look down doing compressions. Arms are getting sore. We switch again and I look at the guy in the back again. Still good – she knew he didn’t need as much attention when we loaded, so he went back there.
The attitude of the aircraft changes – we’re getting close. The call to the CSH is made by the pilots. We’re doing compressions all the way to the ground. I’m the first one out, waving the litter team in. Bottom guy first, I point. Out he goes. Top guy needs to be pulled out a bit more carefully – IV tubing and wandering arm. She goes with him, and I open the door the rest of the way to get the guy in back out. Good thing he is relatively ok – the door catches the handle as it goes back and pulls the litter off the pan a bit. He braces on the ceiling and the back row of seats and we ease him out. Back in to move forward for the second aircraft a couple minutes behind.
My arms are rubbery. The inside of my visor is stained with salt. The cabin is a tangle of wrappers, lines, blood, and equipment. The second bird is on the ground. Unloading. I go back to help fix a window, see the mess on the ground by the door. Dunno what it is – don’t want to know. Looking at it makes me want a cigarette. Now. No time. Get replacement litters and straps, go back to the bird.
She comes back out and we find out that the bottom guy didn’t make it. I find out later that she was in the emergency room when CPR was stopped and that she almost broke down, but didn’t. I feel it coming, but there is no time… need gas, need to get back, need to clean for the next cycle. “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac pops into my head for some odd reason a quarter of the way back and stays entrenched in my mind for the duration of the flight.
When we get back, it seems like almost everyone has come out to help clean. Having been on the other side – cleaning after someone else returns from a flight, I know that it was never a question. I know that part of the reason is to see how the crew is coping. I do it for others, they do it for us. We get the bird cleaned up, restocked and reassembled for the next crew. The day goes on.
So, how are we doing with this? We did all that we could, but sometimes it really just isn’t enough. Those are the words of the Medic a few hours later over a strawberry smoothie… rehashing the flight. She’s amazingly solid. Me? It’s hard to say. Thought I pressure washed all the blood off my boots, but then this morning I noticed I didn’t get the laces good enough.
It only bothers you if you let it. Or if you didn’t do everything that you could. We pick ourselves up and throw the gear on for the next call because we have to… they need us to.