Chapter 5 - Death Comes in Threes
BJ and Margaret got to the helicopter pad first. Both of the patients had chest wounds.
This one doesn't look as bad. Looks like shrapnel," yelled Margaret as she checked the wounds of a young man with curly red hair. She thought he looked familiar. There were so many young men who came through that it was difficult to remember most of them. Still, there were faces that would stay in her mind forever.
"Start them both on 2 units of whole blood. Let's get 'em prepped stat!" BJ called over the roar of the chopper blades. He looked around and saw that these were the only two incoming. He felt lucky. Lucky? He thought, who would have thought that he'd consider two critically wounded as being good luck. But in light of the hundreds they'd operated on over the past twelve hours it was all relative.
The two soldiers were prepped and ready for surgery.
"Winchester and Pierce, I want you two on these. We'll go with our strength here... and you two are the chest cutters."
"Aw shucks," said BJ, "I want to play too, Dad."
"You can't have all the fun, Beej," smiled Hawkeye. "But I can always use a gas passer. So scrub up and join the 'party.' Margaret, care to join us?"
Margaret looked up, exhaustion in her eyes, "Of course, I wouldn't want to miss assisting the great Benjamin Franklin Pierce. I have to have something to tell my grandchildren about some day."
"Oh pleeease," moaned Charles. "Any more syrup and I'll go into a diabetic coma."
"Charles, you're not a diabetic," laughed BJ
"My point exactly," said Charles.
"Klinger! Where's that x-ray?" Margaret called out from the OR.
"Coming, oh Angel of Mercy."
"Stick it in your ear!" She replied. She was tired and just wanted to get on with the surgery so she could rest her weary head. It had already been a long day, no, two days in surgery. Every part of Margaret's body ached and she longed to sink into a hot bubble bath. Since that wasn't an option she'd settle for a shower and a snooze on her cot.
"Now now, Margaret, play nice," said Hawkeye, grinning behind his mask. "I'm scrubbed and ready to go...where's my patient?"
Two corpsman carried in the young red haired man Margaret had diagnosed in triage. Hawkeye examined the x-ray.
"This boy looks like a junkyard." said Hawkeye. "Looks like you're a regular collector of shrapnel, kid." He pointed out the x-ray to BJ. "There's some around the right femur and in the pelvic area. What concerns me the most is the concentration in the left side of his chest. I'll go in after that first. For the most part I think you're going to be just fine, son," he said to the young soldier.
"Hello, Captain Pierce, remember me?" said the young man on the table. "I'm Corporal Howard Owens. I've been here before. You operated on a lacerated artery in my right leg."
"Ah yes," replied the surgeon with a smile. "I thought I recognized you as a repeat customer."
"Is Radar still here? When I was here before he gave me his lucky four leaf clover. It d-d-doesn't seem to have been very lucky for me, though." Owens said with labored breath.
Hawkeye said, "Radar went home a few months ago. The place hasn't been the same without him. Personally, Owens, I think you just couldn't get enough of the Chateau 4077."
"I-i-i g-guess not. Frankly, Sir, I'd rather stay at The Roadside Motel back h-h-home." said Owens weakly.
Hawkeye laughed, "That's very good Owens. At least they haven't injured your sense of humor. So, tell me, did you go swimming in a mine field?"
"N-n-not exactly s-s-sir, my buddy, Private Hollister stepped on a land mine and I was next to him when it happened." A tear trickled down his face. The young corporal was now forcing words between desperate gasps for air. "T-t-there wasn't much left of him...Captain Pierce, i-i-it h-h-hurts when I take a b-b-breath."
"Margaret, stethoscope...hold it for me so I don't have to rescrub. "Okay, no more talking, Owens." The surgeon listened to the boy's chest. His breath sounds were equal and bilateral. He spoke to Owens reassuringly, "Your chest sounds clear, you're probably experiencing a little panic. Relax and take it easy. We'll take care of you. I think this time you might even get to go home." Hawkeye took another look at the young man and noticed, with growing concern that his lips were turning blue, cyanosis. This was not a good sign ."Beej, put him under, stat!"
But before BJ could get the mask over Owens' face the boy arched his back in pain, his eyes widened and rolled back in his head.
Hawkeye knew he had to act quickly. "Looks like we have an aneurism...!"
Before the surgeon could get another word out of his mouth the boy's chest seemed to explode. The red stream knocked Hawkeye against the next table, covering him from head to toe. He staggered backward, hitting his head hard on the concrete floor.
He jumped up prepared to do cardiac massage. But BJ grabbed his friend, pulling him away from Owens.
"Hawk, he's gone."
Charles watched in stunned silence from his table. "Good Lord," he managed to whisper.
Klinger ran to find Colonel Potter. Father Mulcahy who had witnessed the entire event stood silent for a moment and then approached the dead boy to administer last rites.
Hawkeye stood, dazed, literally bathed in Howard Owens' blood. He gave BJ a look that would haunt the surgeon from California until the day he died.
"Hawkeye, there was nothing you could have done." BJ said, attempting not to let his voice waver.
Margaret touched his shoulder. In a husky voice she whispered, "Hawkeye, you did your best."
Hawkeye started to laugh in a way that frightened Margaret. It was an eerie and hollow laugh...almost inhuman in its sound, "My best? I did my best? Margaret, I didn't do a damn thing! I talked to him...made a joke. My best? My God! I killed him." Hawkeye took off his cap and mask and threw them hard to the floor.
"Hawk, I don't understand," said BJ questioningly, "You didn't touch him, how could you have killed him?"
Colonel Potter came through the door. He'd seen this happen before on the battlefield in WWI. It was something no one could ever become accustomed to. He'd hoped he'd never see anything like it again.
Quietly he motioned to Margaret and BJ to get Hawkeye out of the OR. "Take him and get him cleaned up. Klinger, get a couple of corpsman and get this mess cleaned up. I'm sorry to have to do this to you, son, but someone has to do it. Remind me to tell you again, how much I appreciate you, Max."
Klinger had tears in his eyes, "Yessir. I'll get right on it. Colonel, is Captain Pierce going to be okay?"
"I certainly hope so, son." Colonel Potter hoped this wouldn't be the final straw to break the camel's back. He'd seen Hawkeye go through a lot and somehow he'd always managed to land on his feet. Something about the look in the younger surgeon's eyes scared the older man. "I certainly hope so."
BJ kept a firm arm around Hawkeye as he walked him to the showers. Margaret had an arm wrapped around Hawkeye's waist. Her tears made it hard to see where they were going so she followed BJ's lead. Hawkeye kept repeating, "I killed him. I killed him." He was totally oblivious to the fact that nearly everyone in camp stood, watching them as they made their way to the showers.
BJ knew it was quite a spectacle; the three of them in blood spattered surgical clothing and Hawkeye, who walked between them was completely covered. He still looked dazed. BJ felt fear welling up inside him.
BJ remembered Steve Newsome, who had come to fill in when Charles and Colonel Potter had the mumps. He was a skilled surgeon with a sense of humor that matched Hawkeye's and his own. He seemed to fit in well at the 4077. It had been a while since he'd been 'in the trenches' though and without any warning, the man had snapped. He just wandered out of OR into Potter's tent and sat down, staring into space. He kept repeating, "It doesn't wash off...no matter how I try, it doesn't wash off...I can't...I can't."
"Margaret, can you go to the Swamp and get Hawk a clean set of clothes?" BJ asked. "Are you going to be okay?"
Margaret seemed pretty shaken and BJ didn't want to put any more on her than she could handle.
"Of course I'm okay. Why wouldn't I be okay?" she asked almost defensively. But her eyes told him a different story. "I'll be right back with his clothes and a towel."
Back in the OR, Charles left Kellye to close the skin on the patient he'd just finished operating on. The operation was a success and comparatively uneventful. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Everyone in the room was still in shock over what they had just witnessed with Corporal Owens' violent death and Captain Pierce's reaction.
"Good heavens," said Father Mulcahy. "I've never seen anything quite like that. Major Winchester, what just happened?"
"Pulmonary embolism, Father, an aneurism...to put it in terms you can understand, a blood clot caused by trauma from a chest wound. But to tell you the truth, I've never seen one quite so severe myself." There was no trace of arrogance in Charles' voice, only a mixture of exhaustion and astonishment.
"I saw it happen like that one other time back in dubya dubya one." Colonel Potter reminisced." It was out on the battlefield...a young soldier with a bayonet wound in his chest. The medic tried to make the boy more comfortable and the next thing he knew the chest burst and the force of the blood from the artery knocked the medic clean into a nearby tree. I had nightmares about it for years. I suspect others did, too."
"I'm worried about Captain Pierce," said Father Mulcahy.
"Yes, Padre, I'm with you there. I have a sneaking suspicion we'll be making a call to Sidney Freedman." The colonel decided to go to the showers to check on his two surgeons. He looked back and said, "Winchester, are you okay?"
"Of course I am, I'm a Winchester," retorted the surgeon, trying to seem pompous and sure of himself. Then he replied more thoughtfully, "I will be okay, Colonel, thank you for asking."
The truth of the matter was that Charles was concerned for his bunkmate. He'd seen Pierce rant over injustice and rave at his hate for guns. He'd seen the man make a total fool of himself over a pretty nurse and he'd seen him falling down drunk. But the look he saw in the other surgeon's eyes tonight made his blood run cold.
"BJ, I killed that boy." Hawkeye sputtered from under the running water. "You can keep me under this shower until I turn into a prune and his blood will still be on my hands."
"Hawk, you're talking nonsense. You didn't even have a chance to touch him." BJ was sponging down the other doctor as gently as he might have bathed his daughter, Erin.
"I operated on him twice before and sent him back to the front...not once, but twice. Third time's a charm, they say. But then they also say death comes in threes, don't they? Who are 'they', Beej. If I'd sent him home he'd be alive. He might be at a drive in with the girl next door tonight, breaking curfew. That child wasn't a soldier....aaaaaaaaaaaah" Hawkeye let out a cry that turned BJ's stomach inside out.
"Hawkeye, listen to me. I remember the times that Corporal Owens was here. His wounds didn't warrant a discharge. You couldn't have sent him home, it was out of your jurisdiction."
"I could have lied."
"And risked court martial? And, Hawk, what about the hundreds of other boys that went back to the front after we operated on them? You did your job to the best of your ability. We've all lost patients, you have, I have, Colonel Potter, Charles....But think of how many lives we've saved."
"Yeah, we saved them. We got 'em well enough to go back and die! Damn I hate this war...I hate this place!" Hawkeye yelled, grabbed the wash cloth from BJ and threw it back in his face. BJ stared at Hawkeye not knowing what to say.
Colonel Potter had been standing at the door for while now. "Son, is there anything I can do?"
"Sure, Sherman!" said a raging Hawkeye, "Put an end to this damn war!"