I want to share my experience as a nurse taking care of wounded coalition forces and insurgents near Baghdad, Iraq. It was the most meaningful thing I ever did and the most horrible. I carry mental scars that I hope will heal.
11 military nurses and I deployed to a field hospital just outside of Baghdad in Jan 2005. The stress levels and workload we carried were incredible. We staffed a 75 bed ward with just the 12 of us, around the clock. A normal patient load was 13 to 16 patients each (Gasp). We took care of patients with traumatic amputations, chest tubes, bullet wounds, drowning victims, children and infants who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, prisoners…and we did the best we could. Did we give good patient care? By stateside standards a resounding no! We worked six 12 hour shifts each week and we were just plain exhausted. We were attacked by missiles and mortars daily. I became convinced I was not coming home; that I would never see my husband or children ever again…especially after a missle landed 10 feet away from me…and it did not detonate!
The Iraqi patients threw urine and feces at us, and spit on us (and those were the “good guys”). One nurse was bitten. Three of us were sexually assaulted (we were the only females on the base who were not armed and were easy targets). We cared for patients in tents, with minimal medical equipment, and we saved a lot of lives (1100 patients in 4 months). Some we couldn’t…and we cried.
One patient, a middle aged obese Iraqi woman did not deserve what fate handed her. She was a mother and a wife, and just wanted what each of us wants out of life – to keep her children safe, and love her family. As you can imagine, work is hard to find in Iraq right now, and people need money to eat. My patient had a daughter who spoke English. Her daughter gained employment as a translator for the Army. The insurgents planted a bomb just outside the family’s front door to discourage others from doing the same. My patient stepped out her front door (she thanked her gods repeatedly that it was not one of her children) and lost both her legs and her right arm. We saved her….but only temporarily. She developed infection after infection. We did as much as we could for her, but in the end, had to send her to the Iraqi hospital in Baghdad; which had few staff members and few medications. I know we sent her off to die somewhere else.
Events became interconnected there. An Iraqi National Guard Major led his men into a skirmish where American soldiers were slowly being picked off. He saved them. The insurgents planted a bomb in the Major’s house. He was killed; but a visiting female relative, a 1 month-old and a 3-year-old survived (all others in the house were killed). The 3 survivors were severly burned. The newborn and the mother spent several weeks with us and both were discharged healthy but scarred. The 3-year-old died after 6 weeks. We were devistated. Fast forward a couple of weeks. Coalition forces captured the insurgent who planted the bomb and shot him 3 times in the process. We saved him. I wanted to hurt that man, at the very least I wanted to withhold pain medicine, food, etc. But I did not. None of us did.
An Iraqi soldier/patient began touching one of my young nurses inappropriately. I had a gun placed against his head while I explained to him that touching was not allowed. I help people, I don’t hurt people.
I have been home 4 months now. I do not laugh easily any more. I don’t sleep.
If you know a nurse that went to Iraq, be kind, invite her out for a cup of coffee…and listen if she wants to talk about the horrors she lived through. Help her heal.
Wow. Think of this next time you have a bad day at work.