by Bettina Rezori
"This one can wait! Beej, what've you got?"
"Sucking chest wound, you got time? Seems to be a candidate for you."
"Right, get him into pre-op, stat, I'll take him from there."
Once again the compound of MASH 4077 was filled with bloody bodies brought by helicopters. The flow of victims didn't seem to stop.
Heartbreak Ridge, a battle named after its location, seemed to have any intention to manifest itself in the memories of the MASH doctors and nurses as the longest and most backbreaking sessions in the OR that they would ever encounter in their lives.
Heartbreak Ridge, a synonym for how much devastation war could do in thirty days.
Hawkeye Pierce had no idea how long he had been standing in OR, already. After a certain amount of time it didn't matter, anyway. It was like running. Once the personal limit is reached the legs turned to rubber, running on autopilot. Pierce didn't know how many miles were yet to come before this race against death was finished. He met BJ Hunnicutt and Colonel Potter in the scrub room.
"You think the kid with the chest will make it, Hawk?"
"His chances are pretty good. I have a winning streak today. Just keep them coming."
"Be careful what you're wishing for, Pierce. This deluge is far from over. I hope your winning streak holds until tomorrow."
"Or the day after that, Colonel."
Potter shut off the water with his elbow. "Yeah, or the day after that."
"I ... I don't want this, Doc. I'm ... am I dying?"
The young man on the table in front of Hawkeye made a feeble attempt to push away the mask which Nurse Baker tried putting over his face.
"Easy, son, everything will be fine. But unless you want to take an active part in your operation you have to let our gorgeous Nurse Baker put you to sleep. When you wake up everything will be okay, right?"
God, how he hated making these promises. Anything less than a promise, however, would terrify the boy even more, so was there a choice?
"Promise. Now let's stick to the script of this military show, alright? Let's see..." Pierce held up his gloved hands as if he were holding a movie script. "...Page two, scene five:
Injured soldier carried into OR, scared by the circumstances...So far, so good. Scene six: Surgeon succeeds in calming him down and performs operation after patient is put to sleep. Scene seven: Soldier wakes up in post-op, in the company of a dazzling, beautiful nurse. The cameras are all set, so how about it? Shall we begin?"
The boy's features relaxed a little, a weak smile forming on his lips as his eyes closed, probably caused by the mental picture of a nurse beside his bed.
Pierce gave Nurse Baker a sign and she placed the mask over the patient's face.
"Alright, spotlights, close-up of surgeon cursing the war and asking for a scalpel. Camera rollin', sound rollin', action!"
Fifteen hours later.
"Beej, can you spare a minute?"
Hunnicutt had just finished closing the fascia and belly muscles of his patient and asked for finer silk for the subcutaneous tissue.
"Margaret, could you finish here for me?"
"Thanks. New gloves, please. What's the trouble, Hawk?"
"Take a look at this. The bullet busted the brachial artery."
"That arm looks bad. Think you can save it?"
"How many more are waiting outside?"
"One or two, I think. I was gonna take one, Potter the other."
"Let Burns take the second, I need you here." Pierce lowered his voice. "This is a top candidate for a vein graft. I heard lectures about this back home. Remember the article I showed you a few weeks ago? I think it could work."
"Hawk, you are aware that this is against army regulation, right? We could be court-martialed for this!"
"Take a look at him, Beej, he's barely twenty. He doesn't want to wake up finding he's lost his arm."
"What's the secrecy around here? Pierce? Hunnicutt?"
Neither of them had noticed that their commanding officer had come near their table. The doctors exchanged a glance. It was Hawkeye who finally spoke up.
"What do you know about vein grafting, Colonel?"
"Well, you take a part of a vein to replace a part of an artery." Potter stepped around the table to take a look at the patient. "I see. This could work, Pierce. But it's strictly against regulation."
Hawkeye met Potter's gaze, trying to ignore the 'I-told-you-so'-look that BJ shot him.
"If you pull this through I'd advise you not to mention it in the patient's report. But I never said this. In fact, I never saw this patient." With that, Potter turned his back and walked out.
Pierce turned to his friend. "You with me?"
Hunnicutt still looked a bit doubtful, but shrugged. "I just hope this works."
A few hours later Captains Pierce and Hunnicutt found themselves in their commander's office, nursing a drink.
"How'd it go?"
"A lot went on in the last twenty hours. What do you mean, Colonel?
"You know exactly what I mean. The procedure I never heard of on the soldier I never saw."
"Ah, that! Well, we cut out the busted piece of artery, leaving both ends smooth, and then took a section of the greater saphenous vein to fit it in." Hunnicutt explained.
Pierce took it from there. "Yeah, the important thing is that the diameter of the vein fits the diameter of the artery, of course...." He went on to explain the surgery they had performed in detail.
"Shrewd procedure. I take it the operation was successful, then?"
"Bounding pulses in the arm directly after the clamps were removed. That's one arm we saved from amputation."
They drank in silence for a while. After a few minutes Potter spoke up. "As Regular Army and Commanding Officer I should prevent the Army Regulations from being broken. I should tell you here and now never to do this again. I probably should have your butts in a sling and tell you a thing or two about court-martial, too.
"But I'm not. Because the doctor in me has a hard time accepting that limbs are cut off when medical advances enable us to save them. Of course this is off the record.
"So next time you're pulling this stunt leave me out of it. I won't be in your way, but don't make a big deal out of this, and leave it out of the patient's reports."
Potter took another swig of the whisky in front of him. "Once those patients reach the 121st evacuation hospital, I can ask a pal of mine to keep an inconspicuous eye on them for you. Other than that my hands are tied and my eyes closed."
Hunnicutt raised his drink. "Thanks, Colonel. That's a lot more than most other commanders would do. Cheers."
No answer. Hawkeye had fallen asleep in his chair, his mouth slightly open, the glass still in his hand.
"Get your bunkie to the Swamp. My little speech must have had a tranquilizing effect on him."
"Yes, combined with the whisky and more hours of surgery than I care to remember," BJ said, gently prying the glass from Hawkeye's hand. "How long?"
"Heartbreak Ridge? Let's see. It's Friday morning. Twenty eight days. Headquarter says these are the final stages. God, what a battle..."
Suddenly the doors to Potter's office were flung open and Radar rushed in.
"Litter!" Hawkeye Pierce shouted, waiting for the next patient to be placed in front of him, seizing the momentary pause to sit down on a stool in a corner of the operating tent. Exhausted, he leaned against a wooden post and put his head back. Someone appeared next to him with a glass of orange juice which he gratefully accepted, not bothering to open his eyes.
"How are you holding up, Hawkeye?"
"Father. Still here?"
"I have a job to do. And here's where I'm needed."
"Sorry, Father, didn't mean to question that. Where's BJ?"
"Taking a fifteen minute nap outside. Looks like you could use one, too."
"No time for that, the next kid's already prepped." Pierce tried to push himself to his feet, but he lacked the strength. "Big mistake," he mumbled. "Could you do me a favor, Father?"
"Would you please haul me up?"
"How long are we fumbling around here?" BJ sighed. "My head feels like it's packed in cotton or something. This one's finished, next please." Wearily, Hunnicutt threw his gloves away.
"Don't know." Hawkeye said. "How about taking bets? First question: is it day or night? If it's day, what day is it?"
"It's eleven thirty-five, pm. Still Friday."
"I think I had a date tonight at nine o'clock. If I could only remember with whom..."
"That was me, Captain."
"Ooops. Rip-cutter - ouch! Don't use it on me, Lieutenant."
"Consider our date cancelled."
"Great. Colonel, how long is this session keeping up, I'm beginning to... whoa..."