"Doctor, are you alright?"
Nurse Anderson stood directly next to him, yet her voice seemed yards away. Hawkeye felt his heart hammering in his chest, his breathing quickening, an odd kind of panic rising in him. The mask suddenly seemed to smother him. Great, BP's at rock bottom. Don't collapse now, think of something else, but don't collapse! He kept repeating his silent mantra to himself, sweat running down his forehead. Pierce tried to blink away the little black spots in front of his eyes.
"Hawk? You okay?"
"Y... yeah ... fine - suction."
"Someone grab him before he falls! Move it!!" Colonel Potter had spent enough years in the OR to recognize the signs when people were about to pass out, usually either toppling into the patient and thus contaminating the field, or hitting the ground and probably something on the way down.
BJ and Klinger rushed over, each hooking a firm arm under Pierce's shoulders, effectively taking his weight to prevent him from keeling over. "C'mon, Hawk, let's get you out of here."
"I'll be okay, just gimme a minute..." God, this hasn't happened since med school...
"Lie him down outside and put his feet up. Get him a coffee, and when his BP's up, see to it that he gets some shut-eye somewhere."
Hawkeye felt himself being walked out of the operating room, his feet hardly touching the ground thanks to BJ's and Klinger's support. This can't be happening, damn it, I'm no student who needs to be carried out... Another part of him reckoned that without those strong arms he'd probably, indeed, take an involuntary spill.
Behind them in OR business went on.
Two days later action in OR had ceased. Four weary surgeons slumped down in the dressing room, their eyes closing beyond exhaustion. For a few minutes they just sat in their blood-stained gowns, facemasks loosely around their necks. Even taking off the gloves seemed too much of an effort. It was Colonel Potter who finally found the strength to open his mouth.
"Anyone interested in statistics?"
A chorus of unintelligible sounds greeted him.
"Radar just passed me the official numbers of 'Heartbreak Ridge' for our unit. In the last thirty days 1519 patients passed our camp. Number of admitted patients who didn't make it: 8. That's a helluva quote, guys. I'd stand up and congratulate all of you personally but I don't have the power. Perhaps next week."
Hawkeye nudged Hunnicutt beside him. "Beej?"
"Let's do a quick check in post-op, see how our ..."
A meaningful glance from Potter silenced him momentarily.
"...our patients are doing."
They knew each other well enough. BJ understood the main reason for Hawkeye's eagerness to make a round in post-op. He, too, wanted to see how the kid with the busted artery had survived their surgical skills.
When they finally reached the post-op ward, Hawkeye remarked: "I just hope he's still here, with such numbers of patients in such a short time they are passed on to evac mighty fast."
"Yeah, but he was pretty bad off, and it's only two or three days. Chances are he's still here."
They found the patient in a satisfactory condition. "Private Carlton? Hi, I'm Captain Pierce, and that's Captain Hunnicutt, we tried to piece your arm together. And the rest of you. How are you doing?"
"Not bad, I guess. Still hurts."
While Hawkeye peeked under the huge bandage covering the boy's abdomen, BJ compared pulses in the right and left wrists. "Pulses are equally strong. No signs of obstruction in the circulation. Good work, Hawk, no complications!" he grinned, clapping Pierce on the shoulder.
"You gave us a run for our money, Private, the bullet tore an artery in your arm. By the looks of it we managed to repair the damage fairly well. Can you move you fingers? ... Terrific! You'll be on your way to an evacuation hospital tomorrow morning. Take it easy, okay?"
Pierce and Hunnicutt moved to the foot of the bed. BJ yawned, "Let's hit the sack, I think I could sleep till Christmas."
"Christmas 1952? That's only two months. Well, you go ahead, I want to check on a very terrified youngster, first. You remember the blond kid with the chest wound you called me for?"
"Ah, yes, Johnson from Michigan. Funny, isn't it, so many faces passing by in this rat hole, but some you just don't forget. See you in the Swamp, then, although I probably won't be awake that long."
"I'll wake you at Christmas morning, if that suits you."
"Sounds like a deal. Au revoir."
Trying unsuccessfully to suppress a huge yawn, Hawkeye dragged himself over to Johnson's bed and sank down on its edge. "Well, Johnson, how are you feeling?"
"Hey, Doc. Better than you're looking, I suppose."
"That's no wonder. Seriously, breathing okay? No major pain? I did quite a number on your chest."
"It hurts when I cough or when I laugh, but it's better already."
Pierce motioned him to be quiet for a minute while he dug out his stethoscope and listened to his lungs. "Sounds good, no congestion."
"Sorry? For what?" Pierce asked, nonplussed.
"For being such a wimp before the operation."
Hawkeye shook his head, not believing what he was hearing. "Now let's set a few things straight, okay? You are how old? Nineteen, twenty?"
"Nineteen." Johnson murmured, his eyes averted in shame.
"Nineteen, fine. You should be home, go out with your girlfriend and eat mum's apple-pie. Fact is, you are thousands of miles away from milk and apple-pie, fighting for a strange country, ending up in a surgical outfit, bleeding and shocky. And you apologize for being afraid?
"Listen, nobody laying on a table in an operating room is a wimp, and if anybody tells you he wasn't scared to death in that situation he's either lying or insane. Nobody blames you for being human, Johnson. Don't forget that."
"No, Sir, I won't. Thank you."
"You just get better, okay?" Hawkeye smiled wearily, giving the boy's shoulder an encouraging squeeze.
With an Herculean effort he pushed himself to his feet and made his way to the dressing room to get rid of his surgical garb.
When he finally reached the Swamp Hunnicutt was fast asleep.
Mustn't forget to wake Beej before Christmas, he thought, as his head hit the pillow and he sank into blissful sleep.
Bettina Rezori, Germany
I recently read Dr Otto Apel's book titled "MASH - An Army Surgeon in Korea", an autobiographical recount of the Korean War told from Dr Apel's point of view. Like so many other doctors, Apel - who was a young intern at a Boston hospital at the time - was drafted into the war by means of the newly passed 'Doctor's Draft Act'. The book is a must-read for anyone keen on taking a glimpse beyond the sets of the television series M*A*S*H.
A few things in my story are based on Dr Apels experiences* and he and his colleagues back in the early fifty's are the real, unsung heroes of "Heartbreak Ridge".
For one there is the principle of vein graft, a method of taking a vein section to replace a piece of artery. The theory was known at the time, however it was not a common procedure and thus prohibited by the Army Regulations. MASH surgeons like Otto Apel had heard about the principle, and though it was definitely not 'by the book' they risked court-martial more than once to save soldiers from losing an extremity.
Today this method is still routine, especially to replace the coronary arteries which supply the heart muscle with oxygen.
Dr Apel also wrote about 'Heartbreak Ridge', the name of a ridge between two hills in which major fighting took place for about thirty days. It is possible that there were even longer sessions for the MASH personnel, but the numbers Colonel Potter mentions are true. One has to take into account, however, that those were not only surgical cases, and that the MASH 8063rd had a post-op ward with over two-hundred beds and a few additional doctors.
This story is meant to honour the Dr Apel's of the Korean War who worked beyond exhaustion in conditions few of us can deem possible.
* I have no official permission from Dr Apel to use his name or facts from his book, but I'm not making any profit out of this so please don't sue me. Same goes for MASH, the characters don't belong to me, but I guess you already figured that out. Privates Carlton and Johnson are mine, the rest belong to Larry Gelbart et al. At least I think so.