The room was silent, as the three colonels shifted and arranged papers in their laps. The major held up a single sheet of thick paper and began to read, as the staff sergeant readied her hands over a small electronic device that sat on the tiny top shelf of her toy-like mobile desk.
“In the matter of the investigation into the command of the Third Battalion, First Marine Division, and the command of that unit by Colonel…”
The major kept talking but I could no longer hear him. Tears flowed down my face as if some dam had cracked and was coming apart. They were there, the Board of Inquiry in my ICU unit, to investigate the colonel and not me. I was a witness, or so they supposed or knew. The major droned on for several minutes, but all I could do was look at the big clock above his head. I counted the seconds like I was in the last minutes of my fourth hour before another shot of morphine could be administered to me.
I didn’t care about the colonel of my battalion, the three colonels over to the side of me, or about the board of inquiry, whatsoever.
I closed my eyes and moved my head from side to side, unable to wipe away the tears trapped on my drenched cheeks. The flow slowly stopped. I’d been unable to cry tears of grief, but I’d somehow been able to cry many tears of relief. I thought my life was over, once again, but another bridge had been thrown across my Bong Song, another avenue of escape had opened up.
“I’ve got to stop ‘my life is over’ stuff from continuing,” I whispered to myself.
“What did he say?” a voice from seemingly far away asked.
I felt a hand press my left bicep, but ever so gently, and then a whispered woman’s voice spoke into my left ear, so close that the warmth of her breath seemed to penetrate straight into my brain.
“You are not under subpoena,” the voice said. “You don’t have to talk to these people at all if you don’t want to.”
I didn’t answer her, although I did force my eyes open to blink away tears trapped there and look into her eyes.
“Please dry my face and give me a piece of ice,” I whispered back, my mouth so dry that I could barely get the words out.
In seconds my skin was being wiped down by someone on the right side of the bed. I hadn’t known that Kathy was in the room until then. An ice chunk slid into my mouth and I sucked on it greedily, holding the piece with my back molars.
One colonel after another asked a question, but their words were all gibberish to me. If I lived, then I was going home and would have a chance of regaining my life back. I could not think past my wife and daughter and my renewed hope in getting back to the real world.
“He’s not going to say anything,” a voice I now recognized as the Navy Captain’s wife said, from very close by.
“I’m getting his next morphine injection from the nurse’s station,” Kathy said, stepping to where the major sat blocking the double doors.
The major grabbed his papers and leaped to his feet, sliding himself and the chair closer to where the three colonels sat to get out of her way.
There was a silence in the room. In only seconds Kathy was back, entering through the doors and walking directly to my side. I’d gotten my last morphine shot only minutes prior to the board coming into the room. I might not be able to survive another one administered so quickly after the last one. I tried to warn Kathy but she moved too quickly. Flicking the plastic protective tip from the syringe, she approached and then plunged the needle into my I.V. mess of small pads, blocks, and tubes taped to my right arm. She tossed the empty syringe into the can behind the Captain’s wife, with her usual accuracy.
“Close your eyes,” the woman’s voice said directly into my left ear. “It’s saline, not morphine. You are about to be unconscious.”
I closed my eyes, in relief once more, and gratitude. I got it. The Captain’s wife, Kathy, and probably Shoot, were all banding together to save me as best they could. In that instant, I knew that the three, a nurse, a corpsman, and a volunteer were a whole lot more than I had originally thought. I was not under investigation, but could easily be under investigation. In one of my sociology classes at St. Norbert a visiting police officer had lectured and said something as unlikely and nearly unbelievable as I’d ever heard a law enforcement official say. He said that most people in prison didn’t get there because of what they’d done. They got there because of what they’d said they’d done.
Even with the noises of chairs moving and many people talking in low tones it was easy, with great assistance from the earlier morphine shot, to simply drift into a deep sleep. I knew as I faded away, that I would be wide awake in a couple more hours. The pain, when it appeared again in full bloom, would have nothing to do with allowing any sleep at all when it once again wrested full control from the deadening morphine.
Two days, and two very long and difficult nights, went by. The trappings of tape and plastic attached at different points to my body had come down in number to the point where my bare body under the sheet they kept over me felt almost naked. The single I.V. dripped away, the smaller bandages on my stomach were changed twice a day. Kathy always changed them just after I received an injection for the pain, probably because without that drug the experience would have been even more awful, for both of us.
Life changed a little on the morning of the fifth day of October. Both Lieutenant Masters and Lieutenant Puller were brought out of their comas. Puller’s ventilator was removed, but not Masters’.
Finally, in what I thought to be late afternoon, the room emptied completely. The room never fully darkened at night, but the lights were cut to about half power. I’d been too cold in my ward room upstairs but in the I.C.U. I was over-heating to the point of perspiring visibly into the sheet beneath me. Kathy and two other nurses I didn’t really know came and went, changing sheets and cleaning everything with disinfectants.
“I can’t go home like this,” Puller said, without turning his head toward me.
“We’re alive,” was all I could think to reply.
“Oh God, the pain drugs don’t stop the pain,” Masters squeezed out.
I thought about the mess the other officers were in, and that I was in. The losses both officers had suffered were apparent and discussed by the medical staff. I didn’t know what I’d lost myself and was too wounded to truly take inventory. I had my legs and arms, but would my left leg, where the hip had been shattered by one of the bullets, ever heal enough for me to walk? What really remained under the bandages of my left hand, where I’d cut it so badly, but was not Purple Heart awarding, I didn’t know. We were all in agony but, for me at least, it was better to be in agony with them than to be alone.
Dr. Ahtai entered through the double doors. Kathy had indicated, during the transfer, that the leading doctor of all Japan had taken an interest in my case. She’d said he was a cardiologist but the only heart problem I’d had was the stoppage for a bit when they’d cranked my bed up too quickly.
The doctor was followed by two assistants whom I presumed were doctors too. The small Japanese man didn’t speak to me, checking my chart and then pulling back the sheet that covered my open wounds.
“Staples, heal from inside out,” he observed, pointing while talking to his two assistants. “Messy but effective,” he commented, analytically.
He then pulled a tape measure from his pocket and began measuring my torso, and then my main incision. I stared down for the first time, thinking about what Puller had said about not being able to go home. I tried to take it all in, my upper body slightly angled up by the bed. I was going to have terrible scars. One bullet had gone into my right side just above the hip bone. I knew just by looking. The small bullet hole was apparent, not stitched or taped over because a scab was already formed. That bullet had to have done in my left hip, which was a mass of stitched wounds from the surgery. My torso was cut from top to bottom in the middle and seemed to lay open, leaving a chasm up and down, several inches deep. The other two bullets had gone in and out leaving small holes like the lower one but bigger ones on the other side. Somehow, they hadn’t hit my lungs or heart, or apparently much of anything else.
“Very interesting case,” Dr. Ahtai said. “Should not have lived, but here now. Infection everywhere. We must lower temperature, antibiotics, and put pump in.”
The assistants both nodded, like the doctor’s presentation was perfectly understandable.
Abruptly the three turned and walked out through the swinging double doors without saying anything more.
“What’s a pump?” I said to myself.
“Funny,” Puller said, from over on my right side. “Condition critical, prognosis messy.”
General Master’s son had been brought out of his induced coma, at nearly the same time as Puller but he was still on a ventilator so there was no ability to converse with him and have him answer, anyway.
I pushed my button to call Kathy.
Minutes later she appeared, but with a small team of white-smocked and masked assistants. They came into the room as a group, almost pushing Kathy to one side.
“They came with the pump,” Kathy said, as the four medically attired males surrounded my bed and went to work unpacking some boxes they’d brought with them.
“What pump?” I asked, incidentally checking the wall clock for the drug time.
I was an hour and a half deep into my four-hour run. I was afraid of having work done on me without the buffer of an immediate shot. No matter what was done to me seemed to cause great pain, unless it was refilling my small cup with ice. The four men worked away, finally opening one last little cubic box. One man pulled out what looked like a small fish-tank pump, and set it down gently on my undamaged hip, while another was slipping a thick pad under it.
“Call me if they get out of hand,” Kathy said, before departing through the double doors.
I sighed, as deeply as I could. There would be no relief shot coming. I could gut out the next few hours I knew, but staring down at the four working, but totally silent ‘beavers,’ made me apprehensive and a bit afraid.
An attendant pulled the adhesive loose that held the patch the surgeons had put over what I knew was my colostomy hole. The hole was awful looking, down and to the left of the even more awful central incision running up and down my torso. That incision gaped a couple of inches wide and seemingly as deep.
Quickly and expertly, like they’d done the procedure many times, the men coordinated to run a clear plastic tube down into the hole, and then many inches in until they stopped and looked at one another. Without comment, preamble, or warning two of the men on my left side tilted me over. Pain shivered its way up and down my body, my broken hip radiating its terrible complaint to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t scream. I couldn’t scream for some reason. Tears again rolled down my face. One man, positioned at the bottom of my bed ran a tube straight into my lower body on my backside. The violation of everything in my physical world had reached the point of intolerance. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I grabbed the metal post holding my I.V. up and crashed it down to the floor.
The men slapped my body back down on the bed, raced to connect their tubes to the fish tank pump, strapped it securely to my hip, added some surgical tape, and then ran a cord out and plugged it into a socket located somewhere on the wall behind the head of my bed. Even quicker, two of the men attached one of the plastic lines to a series of clear plastic bags, like I.V. bags, they’d taped to the bottom metal support structure below my feet. One of the bags was filled with clear fluid. The pump began to vibrate, and I watched the clear liquid began to move, little bubbles purging out of the lines as it moved. A coldness came over the lower part of my body as I felt the liquid flow through me, like it was a running mountain stream, flowing from my chest down to my legs. The pump suddenly turned off…and the men pulled back, obviously waiting. No one moved to fix or raise the I.V .bag I’d thrown down out of agony and desperation.
Kathy appeared through the doors and stopped to take in the scene. I noted the quiet sound of the I.V. alarm going off, it’s ding, ding, ding, seemingly very unimportant in adding anything but an exclamation point to the one-act drama taking place on the top, and bottom, of my body.
The pump suddenly vibrated.
Nobody moved, least of all me. I stared down at the strapped and taped thing like it was some sort of small nuclear plant powering my body to continue on.
The pump shut off, and everyone sprang into action. The four attendants worked to get their stuff together while Kathy walked around them and went to work on fixing the I.V. Suddenly, the men departed, the pump turned on again but there was only Kathy and me to pay attention to it.
“What’s this like for patients who’ve had it?” I asked, thinking about trying to accommodate the unpredictable thing day and night.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Kathy replied, looking over at the pump and then down into my eyes. “I think that Japanese doctor, who everyone says is so brilliant, is trying this out to irrigate your lower bowel. If that works then they want to enter the peritoneum and irrigate your entire containment center.”
“Oh great, like this isn’t bad enough. More surgery for the tubes.”
“You already have drains up and down, and all over, really, so they shouldn’t have to cut you anymore,” Kathy replied, pointing at various small bandages spotted all over my stomach.
“I’ll be back in an hour with some medication,” she said, before turning.
“My arm hurts where the I.V. is,” I said, hoping she was talking about another pain shot, to be delivered an hour early.
“That’s the antibiotics I keep injecting,” Kathy replied. “Heavy-duty antibiotics are irritating before they dilute and spread themselves out. You have to have them because of all the junk that got inside you when you were hit and struggling in the jungle.”
The pump turned on as Kathy went through the swinging doors. I watched the clock. There was nothing else to do. The pump stayed on for two minutes and ten seconds before shuddering off again. Sleeping had been iffy and broken ever since I’d gotten out of the last surgery. What was it going to be like now in the night, I wondered.
The pump turned on, and then off, while I waited for Kathy to return. The pump had taken over my life, I realized. I was living in expectation of its turning on or off. My timing it using the wall clock had proven fruitless as a predictive tool. The pump didn’t work at any time pattern. It went on and off for reasons I couldn’t figure out. It would cycle after two minutes or maybe five. There was no pattern to it that I could figure out, and I’d worked the problem for hours before Puller said one word.
“What the hell, there’s no predicting this thing,” I said to the room, forgetting that Puller was awake.
“Pressure,” he said, his voice more a hoarse whisper than anything else.
The pump was responding to resistance, I realized, and then I proved Puller’s theory by pushing down on the site near where the tube went into the open incision. The pump went on immediately. I found out very quickly that I could turn the pump on at will, but not turn it off at all.
“We’ve been put in here to die, haven’t we?” Puller asked, between coughs.
“No, they didn’t have to put us anywhere special to die,” I answered immediately. “They would simply let us lie on a gurney somewhere in some dark hallway until we were gone. Then we’d be receiving care in the mortuary.”
“I wish I could laugh,” Puller coughed out. “You’re pretty funny.”
“I’d say I do stand-up comedy, but, under the circumstances, I guess I have to confess I only do lie down.”
“Yes, keep going,” Puller responded, no longer coughing.
Kathy came through the double doors, leading the aged ‘volunteer’ and Shoot, both of whom had so heavily supported me when the hearing had been conducted. The hearing wasn’t about me but I could so easily have converted it into being all about me without their quick thinking and help. I was happy to see them, particularly when I noted the syringe Kathy held down by her left side.
“I see you’re conversing with Lieutenant Puller,” the volunteer said.
“He’s very funny, you know,” Puller said.
The old volunteer stopped between our beds and turned to look down into my eyes.
“You keep that up, talking to him,” she whispered. “You’re all he has right now, you know.”
She turned to minister to Puller, while Shoot approached my bed from the other side.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, my pump turning on and drawing everyone’s attention before cycling off again. “I thought you weren’t allowed to work in here.”
“I brought the shampoo,” he said, “and the water basin. I can go anywhere she tells me to, as long as I’m with her.”
“Shampoo?” I asked a bit mystified.
“Yeah, your hair, it’s a stinky mess,” Shoot replied, producing a green bottle of something that read “Head and Shoulders.”
“What’s Head and Shoulders?” I asked, never having heard of the shampoo.
Shoot replied, “For your dandruff, which, between the chunks of leaves and mud, is pretty bad.”
“Funny,” I heard Puller say. “Dandruff, yeah, that’s a real problem. Better get that on your prognosis. Messy with a slash mark and then ‘dandruff.’ He laughed very gently.
The volunteer turned toward me with a beaming smile on her face, like I was doing great at entertaining Puller, even though the rather unintentional humor had been more Shoot’s than mine.
Kathy injected the liquid from her syringe into my I.V. The relief I instantly felt I knew was not justified by the physics necessary for the drug to actually circulate through my system and physically affect me. The very nature of the quite real relief forced me to rethink the ridiculousness I had always held as my reaction to anyone discussing the placebo effect. I never believed in that effect and, even if I had, I would have assumed the effect to only occur in those who did not know whether they were receiving the real thing or the placebo. The morphine affecting me but not really there yet was changing more than my being relieved of pain.
“Here they come,” Shoot whispered to me, and then turned to the volunteer who’d changed her orientation to behind the top of the bed in order to prepare my hair to be washed.
Several people, in civilian attire, filed slowly through the double doors. They were all wearing surgical face masks.
“What are you here for?” the imposing volunteer woman asked, as they gathered at the foot of my bed.
“We’re visiting medical personnel from a conference nearby,” a diminutive man answered, pointing at my stomach. “We came to see the effectiveness of Dr. Ahtai’s brilliant work.”
“We’ll be back in a few minutes when your admirers are gone,” the aging volunteer whispered into my ear, leaning down to the point where her lips almost touched my right ear.
“You are different,” she went on, “nobody normally attracts all this attention, and it’s to be determined later whether that’s a good or bad thing.”
The morphine hit me, and although I wanted to say something all I could do was smile back at her. I had not done anything to attract attention, I wanted to say. The colonel was being investigated by the board of inquiry, not me. The pump was something of Dr. Ahtai’s rather bizarre design, not mine. I didn’t want to be notable anymore. I just wanted to be able to get through the next four hours.
Holidays are creeping up Fast
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