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The Life You Save

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The rain beat down on the camp, forcing people indoors. As little as he liked the rain in Korea, Hawkeye Pierce did appreciate the privacy it afforded. The tent flaps were down in the Swamp. Of the three people who would know if he were “home” or not, two were his tent mates. One was too self absorbed in himself to notice. The other cared enough about Hawkeye to mind his own business.

Even though he was fully dressed, he drew his red bathrobe around himself against the chilled air before settling in to write the letter that had weighed on his mind all week. Carefully shuffling possessions in the small desk, Hawkeye found a Steno pad and a sturdy practical looking fountain pen.

Dear Stacy,

When all of us here at the 4077th MASH received the packet of letters from your class we decided that each of us would select a letter to answer. No trading allowed. Our company chaplain, Father Mulcahy pulled your letter from the stack and was immediately too humbled to remember a single act of charity he’d ever done that might have resulted in saving a life.

The thing is, Stacy, I don’t think he ever thinks of the things he does here at the 4077 as impacting anyone. But if there is anyone in our corner of mud and blood that has saved the most lives, it wouldn’t be any of us doctors or nurses. Oh, sure, we patch up wounded kids and send them back to the fighting or home if their injuries are bad enough. We keep soldiers breathing most of the time. Father Mulcahy keeps them living.

Father Mulcahy wrote you a letter about saving a dog. What he didn’t tell you about were all the other lives he’d saved. All the people he’s touched in the little piece of Korea we’ve been sentenced to. All the ways he’s rescued another being.

For being a chaplain and a priest he somehow has a knack for being in the right place at the wrong time when it comes to grenades. The first time I understood Father Mulcahy’s roll as life saver in camp was a cold windy day shortly before our first Christmas here. We were all on edge and discouraged at the idea of spending Christmas away from home. One of our men, Corporal Klinger, and an officer got into an fight in the hospital. Now, this officer was asking for it, but it could have meant the stockade for Klinger and he knew it. Klinger is a good man, but this war will drag the best person down to the point we do rash things from time to time. After the fight, Klinger found a grenade and threatened to blow up himself and the officer. Father Mulcahy never even flinched as he talked Klinger down. He simply held out his hand and asked for the grenade. He never lost his cool. He never shouted. He just talked. Father Mulcahy saved Klinger, the officer, and several bystanders that day, but if you’d ask him about it, he would probably shrug and say something benign like “Oh well, it was nothing, really.”

Speaking of grenades, once we had a wounded Chinese man in the operating room. See, to us a wounded man is a wounded man. If he’s in need of care, we don’t ask him about his politics. This man, though, thought about ours. Before the nurse could get him under so he could be patched up, this man took a grenade out of his pocket and pulled out the pin. There he was, Stacy, lying on the operating table fighting everyone while we desperately tried to keep him from letting go of that grenade. Our commanding officer, Colonel Potter ordered the room be cleared of anyone who needn’t be in there.

I don’t know if you know how grenades work, so let me tell you. There’s a handle that is held in place by a bit of wire called a pin. Pull the pin and as soon as the handle is released, the grenade goes off. Once the pin is pulled, it could realistically be replaced if needed or wanted. Something you learn in war, though, is the pin is not replaced nearly as often as it should be.

Now Father Mulcahy could have - and should have - left the O.R. when Potter ordered everyone out. Instead he began looking on the floor for the grenade pin. Some people might say what he did was out of self-preservation, and they may be right about anyone else crawling among scuffling feet and medical equipment crashing to the floor. For Father Mulcahy, though, it was an completely selfless response to protect the people around him. He did eventually find the pin and replace it, otherwise our unit would be short several good people.

“Myself included”, Hawkeye thought. He remembered the small but strong hands pulling at his leg. “Move your damn foot! You’re standing on it!” the Father’s tenor voice had shrilled. And moments later the same hands wrapped around his as Father Mulcahy prayed, “Hold him steady. For God’s sake, hold him steady.”

One of the most heroic acts I’ve ever seen was the time Father Mulcahy had to perform an emergency tracheotomy in the back of a jeep. A tracheotomy is a surgical procedure in which a cut is made in the windpipe. The surgeon inserts a tube into the opening to bypass an obstruction and allow air to get to the lungs.

Father Mulcahy and our company clerk, a smart, but squeamish kid by the name of Radar, were transporting a wounded soldier back from the front lines. On the way the soldier’s tongue swelled, and he couldn’t breath. With mortar shells falling all around the three men stopped on the side of the road, Mulcahy followed directions radioed to him to perform this procedure. Now this is a delicate operation under normal circumstances, but for an unskilled person to perform a tracheotomy using a pocket knife and other found objects while the enemy is dropping bombs on you is nothing short of a miracle. Father Mulcahy would tell you he was so nervous he couldn’t think of a proper prayer, and perhaps he was, but that kid lived because of our humble priest.

Then there was the man he saved by performing the last rites. Father Mulcahy had been gone visiting his orphans (we’ll get to the orphans in a minute, Stacy) when wounded came in. As doctors we like to think we’re seeing the whole person, but the truth is when several ambulance loads of wounded people come in at once, all demanding your attention, it’s easy to just see the injuries.

That’s what happened to this guy. In our hurry, we checked too hastily for a pulse and finding none, he was tagged as DOA (that’s dead on arrival). The man lay on a stretcher in the compound for hours waiting for the morgue truck to come pick him up. Occasionally one of us doctors or nurses would trip over him or order a corpsman to move the stretcher with this man on it out of the way. But once he’s tagged, we never bother with looking at a man again. We get too focused on the lives we think we can save to worry about one we think is already lost.

Long after everyone had finished their shifts and had gone to bed, Father Mulcahy came back from the orphanage just in time to find the men with morgue truck loading up this soldier. Father Mulcahy, seeing a man and not another statistic of war like the rest of us, asked to perform last rites before he was taken away. I don’t know exactly how he understood the man to still be alive. A small twitch, a tear in his eye, a shallow breath. I just know one minute I was asleep...

“Pretty sure I was passed out from one too many martinis, but I suppose I shouldn’t tell her that,” Hawkeye stopped to muse.

...and the next the Father was in the compound shouting my name.

I said I’d tell you about the orphans. One of the things war creates are orphans. Fathers willingly or unwillingly go off to war. Mothers leave children to find work where they can. Sometimes neither come home. Up the road from our unit is a Catholic orphanage run by a spitfire of a woman we call Nurse Cratty. She does the best she can, but it takes so long to get packages out here, especially for civilian workers who don’t have the luxury of an Army ship bringing it over.

Father Mulcahy gives nearly every penny he can to Nurse Cratty and the orphanage. He manages trades on the black market for food for them. He works with Radar and Klinger to order extra medicines for the hospital and skims the extra off for the orphanage. During the summer and near the holidays, the whole camp is put to work under Father Mulcahy’s direction to host parties and events for the children. And sometimes, Nurse Cratty has been forced to evacuate the orphanage because the war gets too close for comfort. Father Mulcahy works tirelessly on those occasions to ensure the children have a safe place here at the 4077 to wait out the shelling. There’s no telling how many children have passed through that orphanage and no telling how many babies, expectant mothers, and children would not survive long without the food, medicine and other supplies Father Mulcahy manages to buy, beg, barter, and steal for them.

If Father Mulcahy thinks a child won’t survive in an orphanage, he knows of a monastery who will take in the child instead. Often these are children with an American father and a Korean mother. They are looked upon as second class citizens in both our countries.

Hawkeye stopped for a moment to collect himself, the pain of not being able to do more for the little girl who brightened the whole camp for a short while still too fresh in his mind.

There are many other ways Father Mulcahy has saved a life. He sits with dying men, once even while a visiting Cardinal waited impatiently for our Father to deliver a promised worship service. And another time with his own childhood hero. Now, Stacy, it might not seem like saving a life to spend time with the dying, but that’s exactly what it is. He saves those people from the pain of being alone in their last moments. He saves them from their fears and their anxieties that makes the dying so much more difficult.

Father Mulcahy sees the whole person, not simply their broken bones, bullet laden chests, missing limbs, and concussed brains. He sees their grief and fear and agony. He gives them peace and comfort, whether they live 5 minutes longer or 50 years longer. Father Mulcahy sees past callous behavior, racist remarks, men who want to kill him simply because he’s on what they perceive as the wrong side of the war. He doesn’t care if the person who needs saved is Jewish or Catholic or Buddhist or agnostic. He only cares that they hurt and in some small way he might be able to alleviate that hurt.

The soft noises of a sleeping form coming to a more wakeful state caused Hawkeye to pause to study the man in the cot near him. Dirty blond hair shone almost golden in the pale light from the desk lamp. He was covered nearly to his neck, but one bare shoulder peaked out from under the rough wool blanket. The shoulder bore a purple-red bruise, evidence of last night’s less tender activities. Hawkeye resisted the urge, for now, to kiss the away the bruise and turned back to finish his letter.

We here at the 4077 struggle through our days, Stacy, questioning why we’re here, questioning if we’ve made any difference. The work I’ve done, though, is neatly documented in the form of Army medical records and forms. I can reach into a filing cabinet in our company office on any given day and find lists of men who have come through here that I’ve saved. In that way, Father Mulcahy isn’t so lucky. He has to rely on us telling him what difference he makes. I know first hand the difference he makes, because of all the lives Father Mulcahy has saved, the one that should mean the most to me is my own.

Yours very sincerely,
Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce,
Chief Surgeon, 4077 MASH

The figure in the bed rolled to face Hawkeye just as he folded the letter and slipped it into the ever prominent Bible on Father Mulcahy’s desk. “Go back to sleep, Francis.” Hawkeye whispered. “It’s early.”

“’re dressed.” A small pout passed over his face. “What are you doing up?”

Hawkeye capped the fountain pen and moved to the edge of the cot to kiss a sleepy mouth. He slid lips down to the shoulder exposed to the cool air. “I had a letter to write, and I’m on duty in a few minutes. I may have used most of your ink. I’ll talk to Klinger about getting you a new bottle.”

Francis snuffled into Hawkeye’s hair. “No matter. Do you have to go so soon?”

“Afraid so. Lives to save.” He kissed the warm inviting line of Francis’ neck. “Coffee in a couple hours?” A nod and quiet affirmative hum vibrated against Hawkeye’s mouth. Tucking Francis back under the rough covers, he detangled himself from the sanctuary of wool and bare skin and sloppy half awake kisses.

At the door Hawkeye pulled his poncho on over fatigues and the bathrobe. “Francis?” Hawkeye stopped before opening the door to the rain and looked back into heavily lidded blue eyes.

“Mmmm..?” came the drowsy reply.

“Thank you.”

A bemused chuckled. “Whatever for?”

“The life you’ve saved.”