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