Raising my head a few inches, I wondered if I was having a religious vision. On the wall across from me was an image of the Virgin Mary holding Christs body after his death. An odd way to greet a Jew in a Muslim country: if this was heaven, I must have gotten off on the wrong floor. Actually, it was the intensive care unit of the 28th Combat Support Hospital (CSH, pronounced cash) in Baghdad, where I had been deposited by the medevac helicopter about ten oclock and rushed to surgery. I had awakened in an alcove of the ICU, an austere room enlivened by a local artists copy of Michelangelos Pietà.
My right side was on fire. The surgeon had not only cleaned the open wound and cut off the surrounding dead tissue, but filleted my forearm to relieve pressure from swelling. The process had taken a little over two hours. Now I was crisscrossed in tubes discharging fluids and delivering narcotic relief, my stump wrapped in gauze as thick as a Thanksgiving drumstick.
It was a busy night at the CSH, which the army had built from the bombed-out remains of a hospital in Saddams presidential compound, renamed the Green Zone by U.S. occupiers. The other casualties from what was confirmed to be a grenade attack were recovering in rooms down the hall. Jim Nachtwey had had surgery to remove shrapnel from his knees. Private First Class Jim Beverly and Private Orion Jenks lay next to jars of metal fragments pulled from their bodies. The brightly lit ICU occupied by two other patientsa Pakistani contractor with a bad heart and a Syrian insurgent shot in the head by American soldierschurned all night. Only the medical staff clad in desert mufti changed when the desert sun broke through a small, yellow-curtained window. A middle-aged nurse with blond highlights approached my bed.
Youre a hero, she said. You lost a hand and saved lives.
Hero? I was feeling anything but valiant. Mangled. Pitiful. Disoriented. Scared. I was anxious about my ability to work again with one hand and to parent my children, who lived with me half-time in Washington. Skyler was eleven years old, the same age I had been when my father, a workaholic community newspaper publisher, dropped dead of a heart attack. Olivia was roughly as old as my sister had been. I couldnt bear to think I might let such wrenching family history repeat itself.
Mostly, however, I was angry at myself for getting in the wrong Humvee, releasing the grenade too slowly, even grabbing it in the first place. Nothing would have happened if I hadnt picked it up. Why had I been acting like a cowboy? Why hadnt I just left the damn thing alone?
It was an impulsive act, I told the nurse. If I hadnt picked it up, Id still have a hand.
You probably wouldnt have had a life, she retorted. You and everyone else in the vehicle would have died. It wasnt an impulse; it was an instinct to survive.
I still didnt buy the idea that getting in the way of danger was heroic. But her words got me to think beyond my pain. For the next two days, I studied computer printouts of bionic hands brought by another nurse. I received visitors, including the platoon I had shadowed for the previous three weeks and my Time coauthor, Romesh Ratnesar. My reporting partner from a previous trip to Iraq, Brian Bennett, watched over everything from the anesthesia to the guest list.
The Iraqi employees of the magazines bureau visited and expressed their remorse. Driver Sami al-Hillali, a doe-eyed man with a salt-and-pepper beard, understood my pain all too well. A land mine had blown off his right foot in the Iran-Iraq war in 1983. I knew he wore a wooden foot but had never before heard the backstory. Standing at my bedside, Sami recalled how hed gone more than a day without painkillers and antibiotics; he finally reached a surgeon in Baghdad who wanted to amputate at the knee and, when Sami balked, kicked him out of the hospital. Sami went home and spent a year in bed, nursing the open ankle wound by himself.
Excerpted from Blood Brothers by Michael Weisskopf. Copyright © 2006 by Michael Weisskopf. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holts and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
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