Everything is white – the walls, the bed, the sheets – causing a harsh glare to permeate in the room from the sterile fluorescent rays. I turn them off, but the nurses just turn them right back on – doing their hourly check ups or for the frequent “celebrity” visitors wanting to praise me for my service – cameras always at the ready. I just want them to leave, all of them. I want silence, sleep, a little privacy. Just to be left alone with my mangled limb and ever-pumping pain meds. I’d sleep for eternity if I could only keep my eyes shut. I close them and I think of him – burnt beyond recognition – his wife and newborn son left back home to wait for knocking soldiers with terrible news. He took the brunt of the roadside bomb. He saved our lives. It’s what keeps me up mornings like these; 4am watching Home Improvement with one eye closed and the other fighting to focus. Riddled with survivor’s guilt and the explosion playing on a loop in my head. I pump the dilaudid every five minutes, and while it does a good enough job of making Tim “The Toolman” Taylor look like a Pixar creation, it does little to ease the severed nerves and cooked muscle that burns, freezes, itches, and stings all at the same time.
Five pieces of shrapnel – varying from baseball to golf ball to quarter sized – destroyed six inches of my femur and left a gaping hole in my thigh the equivalent to a fleshy donut. Bandages connect plastic tubes to a vacuum machine that pumps away harmful pinkish-yellow fluid from each open wound. Feeling odd sensations is nothing new as nerves chaotically search for reconnection, but the warmth that overtakes my thigh is different. It feels too real, like hot maple syrup being poured over the extremity. I look to see that each hose is now pumping vats of burgundy blood. The adhesive connecting bandage to skin begins to loosen allowing blood to seep onto the sheets. I call to a nurse’s aid and when he responds he calmly places a bunched up towel beneath my thigh to put pressure on the bleeding. His nonchalance eases me for a moment. He’s seen this before, I think, before realizing the pressure causes arterial blood to rupture from the bandages and spray from my leg like a lawn sprinkler, several feet into the air, coating the once white sheets and now terrified nurse’s aid in buckets like it was the climax of Carrie. His frantic calls for help bring an army of medical personnel into my room. They fill me with a fear that breaches any perception of fear I’ve ever had before. In an instant, a year of bullets and bombs on Baghdad streets is evaporated from memory. I force my drooping eyes onto the television, my vision blurs, my heads a helium balloon, my hands cold and clammy. I call out to them, “Don’t let me die, don’t let me die,” over and over again. I feel embarrassed by this. Like I’m an actor giving it his all for a chance at the Oscar. This is me. I’m the action hero and this is my final scene.
A mystery doctor, tall, black Idris Elba look alike has two fingers and all of his strength pressing on my leg where the femoral artery meets the aorta. He stops the blood enough for the team to transport me to the OR. The gurney ride is much like a lucid dream. I keep my eyes locked onto mystery doctor and the passing fluorescent lights cast a glow around him that make him look divine. Then nothing.
I wake moments later to doctors and nurses frantically fighting to get a tourniquet on. Bright operating bay lights blind me. All I can hear are muffled exchanges and the repetitive beep of machines. I force my eyes to focus and set them to the surgeon, the mask covering his mouth, and the last thing I see before my world goes black is complete and utter terror screaming from his eyes.
Fourteen hours later I wake, opening one eye first, then the other. I can make out the outline of figures around me. They are distorted and unrecognizable, but they stand over me as if watching me, waiting. My mouth is dry and the acidic taste of desflurane bombards my taste buds. I wipe the blur from my eyes to see my parents and the surgeon standing over me, looks of relief on their faces.
“You gave us quite the scare,” the surgeon says, resting his hand on my now fully bandaged and ex-fixed limb. I run my eyes along the large metal contraption, much like a barbaric Tinkertoy design, to the inside of my left leg, initially untouched by the roadside bomb, which now has a trail of staples from ankle to groin.
“We had to take the greater saphenous vein from your good leg to create a new femoral artery in your damaged one. You’re actually very lucky,” he says with a smile, “the shrapnel initially damaged your femoral artery upon impact, but the intense heat cauterized it immediately. It saved your life.” Approximately 5.5 liters of blood in a 180 lb. body. The surgeon guesses about half of that was left to coagulate on the sheets. He’s excited, and a little proud, and I force myself to smile as I take it all in, but really I don’t feel lucky. I’m frightened. What if tomorrow it blows again? What if I’m sleeping the next time it happens and I can’t warn someone? What if this is it?
The surgeon leaves a short time later and my parents fill me in on what he left out. They tell me twice during the procedure my heart stopped beating. It got so bad that one point they readied my parents to say one final goodbye. My mother tells me this as if gossiping with a neighbor, but I only stare into the distance. I am there, I can hear her tell me they came again during surgery to warn of my likely amputation, but my thoughts are to a parade field on an Army base in Germany; my comrades getting back without me. They are jazzed out in dress blues for our welcome home ceremony, drinking German beer and planning their Christmas vacations. I don’t want to hate them, but I do. My thoughts belong to an obliterated Humvee in Iraq. They’re matted to the interior in thick, fleshy chunks. They’re counting the fading beats of a dying heart. My thoughts are no longer my own, but possessed by war, narcotics, and confusion. Mother doesn’t like my lack of attention much.
“I’m trying to tell you about your surgery,” she snarks. “Are you even listening to me?” I’m not. My 21st birthday is in a week and I’m wondering what kind of cake I can snag from the dining facility, and about Frankenstein – on account of the staples.