Casualty Ward: U.S. Medical Center Handles Thousands of Trauma
Cases From Iraq War
By Mike Lee
L A N D S T U H L, Germany, Aug. 8, 2004 It looks like that opening
scene from the TV comedy M*A*S*H. But Hawkeye and Pierce, Radar, and Clinger
don't exist here.
These are real doctors and nurses at the Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany, facing horrors seldom seen by the American public already over 12,000 battlefield casualties from Iraq.
Their patients speak with tension in their faces. Not even the pain killers can stop all of the throbbing of their injuries. I am amazed that they want to talk about what happened.
"Some shrapnel went through my eye," says Staff Sgt. Daniel Beaty.
Another injured soldier, Cpl. Jeff Swaser says: "The shrapnel came in through my side, punctured my lungs, fractured a couple of my ribs, and broke up into little pieces and put holes into various organs."
He even manages a smile, a combination of sneer and laughter that he had escaped death.
They are all cared for by 1,800 doctors, nurses, and other staff who day after day after day are faced with broken bodies and broken lives. And the sight of each new wounded soldier seems to open up an emotional wound.
"You walk in and your see young kids blown apart," says Col. Bernie Roth, who works in the intensive care unit. "Sometimes half their brain is gone, arms gone, legs gone. It's hard, it's really hard."
It Tears Your Heart Out
Lt. Col. Peter Matsuura is an Army reservist who gave up his private practice in Hawaii for three months to help out at Landstuhl.
"It's hard to see these kids come in, and it tears your heart out," he says while operating on a badly injured leg. "I thought I saw a lot of trauma when I was in training, but there's nothing compared to this."
And living with this means there is a price to pay for those who care for the wounded. Military psychologists have a name for a little-talked-about illness.
"We call it compassion fatigue," says Lt. Col. Sally Harvey, a U.S. Army psychologist. "It's the cost of caring day after day. Our staff experiences many of those same emotions that our patients do. Some people can get depressed, can feel overwhelmed. It's very much akin to what we call battle fatigue for soldiers who are out there on the front lines."
Yet, many doctors and nurses who suffer compassion fatigue do not seek formal treatment. Some may fear that a record of psychological stress could hurt their chance of promotion. Most just seem to feel they can't take time off from their patients.
Maj. Kendra Whyatt, a U.S. Army head nurse, says she, like others at Landstuhl, deal with it by just getting on with their work.
"I joined the nursing profession to take care of those in need," she says. "And that's what I do. That's what I enjoy doing. If it stresses me out I can't tell you how, and if it's tiring me out I can't tell you how I just do it just do it."
Others find it more difficult.
"We have to deal with very difficult things," Col. Roth says, "like young kids who just lost their arm, and being understanding when they're mad, or calling up that mother of a little girl whose brain is irreparably damaged and is never going to be the same again."
Cost of Caring
Another doctor, Lt. Col. Larry Lepler, has just made such a call to a distraught mother back in the U.S. He is fighting back tears. I ask him what kind of emotion he was dealing with on the other end of that phone line.
He pauses and takes a deep breath.
"Ah, the mother was crying. It's difficult for me," he says, his eyes watering.
"None of us are going to leave here the people we were when we came here,"
Lt. Col. Harvey adds. "There's a tremendous cost of caring."