When he was 23 years old, he’d wanted to die. It was 2005. He was a Marine, a Corporal, and was lying alone in a hospital bed at Walter Reed. His right leg was gone below the knee, part of his left hand had been amputated and about half of his colon had been removed. His intestines drained into a bag and he couldn’t stand without help. The girl he’d expected to marry had not been able to deal with his wounds and had told him good-bye.
Now, in 2015, he was in my office to talk about repairing his abdominal hernia in the place where his colostomy had been. He had a good job, had been married for seven years and had two kids, a four year-old boy and a baby daughter. The medics at Walter Reed had taught him to walk with a prosthesis, how to live with half a hand and had closed his stoma. They’d even restored his will to keep going. He’d finished college, met and married a different girl, and had gotten on with living.
He came to see me because he still did much of his medical care through the VA and I am one of the few surgeons in Mesa who takes CHAMPUS, CHAMP-VA and other military related insurance.
He knew I’d been in the Marines and told me all about his time in Iraq, the endless round of surgeries at Walter Reed, and some of his troubles with the VA.
Then he looked at me and said, “I’ve had a lot of surgery. I don’t know if I can take another one, but the wife says the hernia is getting bigger and I need to get it fixed. I need to know that I won’t die if I have another operation.”
I started to talk about the low risk of anesthetic complications, about how despite his injuries, he was still otherwise healthy, about the minimal risks of the hernia repair surgery. I could tell by the look in his eyes that I wasn’t getting through to him.
I stopped and said, “Are you going to die? Not on my watch, Marine.” He nodded and said, “Let’s do it.”
I know it is rash to promise a patient he won’t die. Even under the best of circumstances, things go horribly wrong and people do die unexpectedly. I think he understands my guarantee is hollow. What he needed to hear was that I would do everything in my power to see that he survived to watch his children grow up. That is a promise I will always make and strive to keep.
His surgery is next week.
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Bruce Davis, MD, is a Mesa AZ based general and trauma surgeon. He finished medical school at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago way back in the 1970’s and did his surgical residency at Bethesda Naval Hospital. After 14 years on active duty that included overseas duty with the Seabees, time on large grey boats and a tour with the Marines during the First Gulf War, he went into private practice near Phoenix. He is part of that dying breed of dinosaurs, the solo general surgeon. He also is a writer of science fiction novels. His works include the YA novel Queen Mab Courtesy, published by CWG press (and recently reissued by AKW Books as the e-book Blanktown). Also published through AKW Books are his military science fiction novel That Which Is Human and the Profit Logbook series, including Glowgems For Profit and Thieves Profit.