Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Flight Surgeon

Deployed to Afghanistan from the States, she's the only doctor for a U.S. military squadron of two hundred.

When she's not cursing the clinic hours that her squadron ignores—they drop-in at their whim for Ibuprofen and Ambien—she walks to the Egyptian hospital to scrub-in, pouring bottled water over her disinfected hands for surgery.

A boy has lost his foot to a land mine. They must amputate to just below the knee.

The Egyptian surgeon laughs good-naturedly at the way she stands by his side during surgery. She is determined to help, to get her hands bloody.

He says the word “cut” in Arabic, which she understands. She hands him a scalpel. Good, he says. Very good.

Are you more American or Korean? He asks.

Who do they distrust the most? She wonders.

I am both, she finally answers. And he nods as if she makes perfect sense.

The Egyptian doctors smoke cigarettes inside the hospital, which is a metal hut in the desert. They insist she smoke with them. If she smokes, she can be trusted.

The Americans only smoke in secret.

While she watches, the Americans reconstruct a facial bone for an man who has lost his orbital floor. He’s been wounded in an explosion. The doctors joke that he’s probably an anti-American terrorist who was building a bomb.

There aren’t enough latex gloves for physical examinations. They must be saved for surgeries. So, when she works in the clinic for Afghani patients who are mostly the elderly, infants, and children, she touches each of them with her bare hands. 

For seventy two hours, she doesn’t sleep, and finally trudges back to her bunk. She takes a shower.

Getting clean is the hardest part. She washes and washes her hands, but still they smell of human odor. When she finally lies down on her cot, she smells each body she has touched, but she sleeps hard and doesn’t dream.

©Ami Mattison, 2011

Flickr photo courtesy of The U.S. Army


  1. Some things never change. I think this woman must be soul sister to Martha in my story "Blasphemy." What a contrast between this sort of nuts and bolts gore and necessity, and the suburban golf-on-wednesdays, beemer-driving stuff that is, naturally, more lucrative by far.

    Love the detail about the smoking. Egyptians are worse about that then the French, so I hear.

    You have such a talent for making your characters real, Mattison. Surely, you don't just spin all this stuff out of your head. It's too immediate for that. I love your writing.

  2. I am humbled to be here - you have some exceptional writing on this blog. I'm a little blown away!

    Goes without saying that I'm pleased you hopped to at my blog and I hop you return often. I will enjoy reading your work regardless however, now I've found you.

    Shah .:)

  3. Impressive treatment of the inorganic way one is treated and has to react to adversity,Ami.;)

  4. I think this piece is convicting because it is condensed and succinct. I can't imagine the story getting better by expanding upon it. The short mosaics are concrete images that give us enough to imagine, yet none of the power is taken away by ambiguity. It seems easy to write, but from experience I know it is not. One final note: as a veteran, I can tell you from my own experience that after 72 hours of work during tense days, sleeping hard is the only thing left. Dreaming is too taxing at that point. Well said.