In this snippet, Reserve Nurse Lieutenant Mary Belanager reaches her new MASH outfit and is thrust immediately into action.
In the early afternoon, they reached Taegu. One officer commented, “Half a day to go forty-five miles on this so-called railroad. When you see the condition of Korean roads, you’ll understand why this is better.”
The senior officer joined the nurses. “Welcome to Taegu, ladies. Let us help you with your bags.”
Glad for the assistance, the small party pushed through the throng that filled Taegu Station. When they reached the main entrance, Julie called, “Over there. Someone has a sign for the 100th MASH. Tell the guys to bring our gear this way.”
The officers said a last goodbye and wished them luck. Two guards from MASH checked each nurse’s name, then picked up as much equipment as they could. Outside the station building, a Korean jumped out and knocked Ann Jackson down, attempting to rip her shoulder bag from her grasp. On one knee, Ann fought back, struggling with the man. The soldiers dropped what they were carrying, chasing the thief away. The would-be bandit disappeared into the crowd as the guards helped Ann up. “You all right, Lieutenant?”
Shaken, she responded, “I’m okay. Does that happen often?”
The GI picked up his packs and said, “People here have nothing and often have to steal to feed their families. What is in your bag might get that kid more than his family makes in a month. Some of it could also end up in the hands of North Korean partisans operating behind our lines. Good job hanging onto it, ma’am.”
Mary and Julie grimaced at each other and rearranged their grip on their bags. Soon, another canvas-covered truck and more armed soldiers came into view. Two guards took up positions in the rear with the nurses and baggage.
The truck bounced along. Like in Pusan, crowded streets and poor peasants passed by. Here, more Koreans filled the road carrying children and loads of possessions. The teeming number of desperate people pushing and jostling overwhelmed Mary. A tired soldier explained that most were refugees fleeing the war. For the first time, she heard the low rumble of artillery in the distance. How close might actual fighting be?
After a series of turns, the truck entered a part of town filled with well-kept homes. Although smaller than typical houses back home, this part of the city was home to a wealthier class. Only a few minutes later, the vehicle stopped at a security checkpoint. Once cleared, the truck labored up a long hill, stopping in front of a two-story, white building with peeling, faded paint. It appeared to be an old school with playground equipment on the side.
The moment Mary jumped down from the truck, she felt paralyzed. Just ahead, orderlies unloaded stretchers of the wounded from a line of ambulances. Although still some distance away, Mary recognized heavily bandaged wounds soaked with blood. A stretcher trailed blood onto the leg of an orderly when he lowered the soldier onto the ground. She fought for breath, seeing too many who needed immediate attention.
To the left, a couple of orderlies strung up a tarp to provide shade for the line of helpless men lying under the relentless sun. Nearby, two nurses assisted a doctor conducting examinations. One of those women, covered in blood, spied the newly arrived nurses. She nodded in greeting. Mary wondered if she should drop her gear and go over to help. Another ambulance bringing more casualties crept past, honking its horn and forcing Mary to jump out of the way. Damn, I almost became a casualty.
An orderly emerged from the hospital and walked over to the new arrivals. “Welcome to the 100th. You can see we’re hard at it. Your hands are needed immediately. First Lieutenant Bates, our head of nursing, requests you report to her. Leave all your gear here. We’ll get it to your quarters. The lieutenant is working in the OR on the second floor. Please come this way.”
The new nurses followed the orderly into the building. Inside, the metallic smell of open wounds, mixed with antiseptic, swept over them. Mary felt dizzy and reached for the wall to steady herself. In a corridor leading to stairs, she saw patients fill every spot on the floor, each with a colored tag on his toe or stretcher. A nurse in blood-spattered fatigues carrying soaked dressings stepped out of a side room. She murmured, “Welcome to the circus.”
Mary tried to steady her breathing following the group up the stairs. Ahead she could see the operating rooms. More men with seeping bandages or missing limbs lay on stretchers along the sidewalls, nurses cutting off their uniforms to prep for surgery. An exhausted nurse looked up at the new arrivals. “We’re glad to see you—been at this for fourteen hours. Your arrival couldn’t come at a better time.”
The new nurses gave quick greetings, then caught up to the orderly.
Besides the stench of wounds and dirt, a realization struck Mary. Despite being surrounded by a multitude of seriously wounded, except for an occasional moan or stifled cry of pain, silence ruled. Their grimaces and facial contortions told how these men suffered. It stunned her to see these wounded bravely dealing with the worst moments of their lives.
At pre-op, where staff scrubbed up, the orderly pulled back a curtain and stepped into the first operating area. “The new nurses are here. What do you want them to do?”
David Walsh, head surgeon, and chief medical officer looked up from his patient. “Have them mask up and stand by the door—no need for them to scrub. Then you can go, Charlie. Thanks for your help.”
The orderly turned. “You heard the captain. Masks are on the shelf behind you.”
Mary’s hands shook, making it hard to adequatecover her face properly. The four edged around the curtain into the OR. Before them stood an operating table. Off to the right stood a second where a bear of a man worked. One anesthesiologist moved between both tables, the floor slick with blood. Death’s smell mixed in the stagnant air.
The head surgeon worked quietly for a moment. “That should do it, Sally. Would you mind closing him? Oh, these are your new people. I’ll do the closing. First, you need to introduce yourself and give them assignments.”
“I can do the closing, Doctor. You could use a break.”
“I’m fine—talk to your people. I got this.”
Covered with splattered blood, Lieutenant Sally Bates turned. “Welcome. We’re glad you’re here. But, unfortunately, you’ve walked into a bit of a mess. No telling how long the casualties will keep arriving, meaning we have to put you to work.”
The four murmured variations of “No problem, ma’am.”
“We’re informal here. I’m Sally, and that man sewing is Dave. He’s our chief surgeon. You can meet the rest later. Two of you are experienced OR nurses. Please identify yourselves.”
Mary’s heart sank. She and Ann Jackson slowly raised their arms.
“You two scrub and gown up, then get back in here. There’s no running water, but you’ll find a jerry can and soap where you got the masks. You others report to triage outside to help there and learn the system. I’m sure you saw it when you entered the hospital. Please get to it.”
Julie locked eyes with Mary. Anxiety washed over their faces. Standing outside the curtain, Mary touched her friend’s arm. “You’ll be fine.”
Julie gave a quick hug. “You too,” as she rushed out.
With a surgical gown on and washing up, Mary thought, You’ll do fine, but I’m not sure I will. Weak in the knees and her stomach doing flips, Mary concentrated on thoroughly cleaning before donning surgical gloves.
Back in the OR, the surgeon called “Litter.” That signaled orderlies to bring the next patient. An orderly quickly replaced the soiled linens with a fresh set. Within seconds, the next man, who had no legs, lay on the table. The operating team started unwrapping bandages from the bloody stumps. Eyes wide, Mary swallowed hard, choking down bile.
Without looking up, Dave sensed the new arrivals. “One of you get over there and work with that big galoot. We call him Bones because his are inordinately large. Ignore his size. He’s a pussycat, although he doesn’t like anyone to know that.”
A loud “Meow” carried from the nearby operating table. Being closer, Ann glanced at Mary, then stepped over.
Mary stepped closer to the senior surgeon’s table, slipping on the blood-drenched floor. She regained her balance, noticing that the operating table was nothing more than a board held up by two sawhorses. The surgeon caught her glance. “Careful there. The floor can get slick from all these operations. Like our fancy equipment? The portable operating tables haven’t caught up with us. By the way, Sally, I need more bricks under the table legs. My back is aching from bending over.”
Lieutenant Bates barked at an orderly. “You heard the doctor. Scout out something to raise the table and check with the other surgeons to see if they need the same.”
The tall, hefty surgeon at the next table said, “I don’t have a problem. I work on my knees.”
A few chuckles came from around the room. At the same time, fresh, sterilized surgical tools and X-rays appeared.
From behind his mask, Dave looked directly into Mary’s eyes. “What’s your name?” The surgeon turned to the X-rays. Simultaneously, the anesthesiologist put the patient under.
“Lieutenant Mary Belanger, Captain.”
“I like that, Sally. Finally, a bit of respect around here. This should be straightforward with the amputations, then ligating of the arteries. I don’t see any other injuries. X-rays looked clean to me. What do you see?”
“It does look straightforward,” Sally responded. “No other breaks or wounds. Poor bastard probably stepped on a land mine.”
“Chet, tell me when you have him ready.”
The surgeon and senior nurse leaned down to work on the soldier. After a few minutes, Dave asked, “Where were you stationed, Mary? And by the way, it’s Dave from here on. Until you get in trouble—then it’s Captain David Walsh. Are you a troublemaker, Mary?”
“No, sir. I mean, no, Dave.” Mary smelled burning flesh as the surgeon and nurse cauterized blood vessels. Head spinning, she fought dizziness and trembling legs.
“That’s too bad, Mary. I had higher hopes for you.”
A small laugh escaped her.
“Where were you stationed?”
“I’m in the Reserves, not regular Army.”
Dave raised his head, eyes smiling above his mask. “Lucky lady. One day living a quiet life, then you get a terrible letter. Where did the Army pluck you from?”
“Manchester, New Hampshire.”
“Beautiful country. The mosquitoes there are almost as bad as here. . . . I take that back. Korean mosquitoes have New Hampshire beaten by a mile. Work in the local hospital?”
“Yes, but not for the past two months. I left because I started caring for a baby.”
Both Dave and Sally lifted their heads.
Mary said, “I’m not the mother. My sister-in-law gave birth and then disappeared, so we took the baby. When I got called up, there’s no exemption for a surrogate parent.” In a burst of nervousness, she went on. “I’ve not been in an OR for a couple of months. Even then, I worked the day shift and rarely saw extreme cases—mostly tonsils and simple procedures. None of the patients I worked with died or even came close.”
Dave returned to stitching wounds. “Tonsils can get complicated. Although it’s been a while, it’s like riding a bicycle after a long spell. It’ll come back quickly. You should feel nervous. We all did when we got here. Okay, Sally, I think we’re done. If you and Mary could apply the dressings on what’s left of this poor guy’s legs, I’d appreciate that.”
Heart racing, Mary stepped forward to stand next to the senior nurse. Sally pointed out the dressings and antiseptic. Mary’s hands shook, taking the bandages as she started to wrap the stump. I can’t believe this is happening. Biting down hard on her lip, she tried to copy how the senior nurse was doing the wrapping.
“Be sure to apply lots of pressure,” Sally said. “We want to reduce the chance of excessive bleeding and don’t want this guy to visit us a second time.”
After she applied the dressings, Mary looked down, her hands visibly trembling. Sally and Dave watched.
“That’s a good start, even for the most experienced,” Dave said. “You’ll be fine with a little time.”
“Thank you, Doctor. I’m very nervous and don’t want to hurt anybody.”
“None of us do, Mary. As I said, we were all overwhelmed when we walked into this factory.” After the surgeon called “Litter,” orderlies carried the finished patient out. Then, another stretcher moved in while orderlies changed sheets, positioned clean surgical tools, and posted X-rays.
Dave faced Mary. “I believe in diving right in and getting you wet. I’d like you to assist me in the next surgery. Sally will stand by. At times she might help, if for no other reason than I’m a tough guy to work with. Don’t take that intervention personally. We need to get you trained as fast as possible. Are you willing to give it a try?”
“Do you think this is a good idea?” Sally asked. “Maybe I should send her to clean-up duty since she’s inexperienced, and there’s no way to avoid death in this place. I can sort out her situation later.”
Yes, yes, yes! Please. I can’t do this. Please God, get me out of here.
With the patient already on the table, Mary stared at a gaping wound in his middle, exposing stomach and intestines. She heard herself somehow say, “I’ll do my best, sir.”
“That the spirit. I know you can do it. We’ll be okay, Sally, Even with this nasty one to start. Make the rest look like a piece of cake. Okay, first look, perforated bowel and stomach. There’s dirt and shredded clothing driven in that we need to clean. I’m going to sew up the lower part of the stomach after cleaning, then stitch up the bowel. It looks like I may have to remove part of the intestines. Chet, is the patient ready?”
“Patient is out. Vital signs stable.”
“Let’s go. Mary, please give me a medium clamp.”
Mary reached for the surgical tray, feeling Sally’s comforting hand on her back. The senior nurse’s other hand snaked around, pointing to the right piece of equipment.
“There’s no more after this one,” the orderly reported.
“Thank goodness,” Sally said from the other surgical table, where she was assisting Ann. It had been a few patients since Sally stood close to coach Mary. “This is as bad as we’ve seen it—about eighteen hours since the first wounded arrived. Things are under control here. I’m going to check on triage and post-op.”
Relief flooded Mary with the finish line finally in view—one more operation to survive. With the senior nurse moving away, things must be acceptable. Soaked to the bone under her surgical gown from the heat and stress, she thought, Please, don’t let me screw up this last one.
Dave shook his head, staring at the injured man on the table. “Another abdominal, although the medics cleaned this guy’s wounds well. Perforated spleen. It looks like a sniper hit him since the exit wound is clean. Chet, is he ready?”
“Our last victim is out.”
Dave made the cuts and quickly had the damaged area of the spleen ready for stitching. Suddenly, the artery next to the spleen burst, sending a fountain of blood into the surgeon’s eyes. Dave dropped his tools and staggered back, desperately trying to clear his vision. Mary panicked, realizing the patient would die if the artery continued to bleed. Without hesitation, she snatched a clamp from the surgical tray and sealed off the ruptured artery.
From the next table, Bones called, “Dave, you need me? Ann, take over here.” The big surgeon rushed over while an orderly finished cleaning Dave’s eyes. Both doctors looked at the open wound where Mary held the clamp.
With the emergency past, Bones headed back to his table, saying, “Bet that doesn’t happen with tonsils.”
Dave stood next to the patient. “Damn fine work, New Hampshire. You saved this man’s life.”