The first thing I noticed on going to see Joao at the Walter Reed (after all the uniforms, of course) is that there are dispensers with antiseptic hand gel everywhere. And god forbid you try to enter a patient’s room without cleaning your hands. The obsessive hygiene is like a sickness itself, to the ignorant eye, what with people washing their hands compulsively. The bacteria they most fear is a little critter called Acinetobacter baumannii.
This bacteria is commonly found in the soils of Afghanistan and Iraq, which is how it has come to the notice of the wider medical world, as soldiers injured in the field, especially by landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), were infected by it. Thus, it was dubbed Iraqibacter. Resistant to all the usual antibiotics, it is a nightmare to clear, requiring doctors to go back to antiquated medications like Doxycycline (which is a pretty low-tech drug). Joao was infected by the Iraqibacter.
All the upbeat and careful messages did not prepare me for how sick Joao actually was. I had believed that the loss of his legs was the worst of the injuries – and yes indeed they are – but it was the myriad other broken bones, perforations and infections that were more likely to kill him. In fact, if he were at any lesser hospital than Walter Reed, and had less phenomenal doctors and nurses than those in the US military, I think he would have died. Against the odds, that obsessive cleanliness, and the smarts of those doctors and nurses, saved him.
While Joao’s quiet drama played out among the dozens of other horribly mutilated soldiers and Marines struggling to survive and come to terms with their injuries, the White House was preparing to present the first Medal of Honor to a living combatant since the Vietnam war. Considering the amount of conflict US forces have participated in since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that came a curious fact to a non-follower of military affairs. Staff Sgt Salvatore Giunta received this, the highest wartime honor after a battle in Afghanistan.
One would have thought that the thousands of firefights and battles that US forces had taken part in would have led the military and the state, especially under the previous administration of George Bush – to try and galvanize public opinion behind US combat heroes. The NYT reports Pentagon stats noting that 464 Medals of Honor were awarded during World War II, 133 during the Korean conflict and 246 during the war in Vietnam. Other than Sgt Giunta, only six US fighters have – posthumously – been awarded the Medal of Honor since September 11, 2001.
I have just finished the book “Black Hearts” about a unit in Iraq that went bananas under sustained moronic and gung-ho leadership. A chilling story of fear, racism, violence, appalling leadership and, ultimately, of courage. As author Jim Frederik tells of the daily fear faced by US forces trying to survive the weapon of choice in Iraq – the IED - I could only imagine how lucky Joao was to have survived his assignments in the “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad. And also how he managed to get such great images from that very difficult war.
Joao will live, and he will recover, thanks to the soldiers he was with, whose swift treatment of his wounds saved him, and later the meticulous and compassionate care of the medical teams who have worked tirelessly on him.
Oh, and did I tell you how Joao’s brother-in-law Roy Innes emerged from Joao’s room to inform the nurse on duty – Captain Kelly Sullivan – that a cockroach had just ran across the gleaming floor of that intensive care facility? No? The calm Cpt’s voice rose several notes, and her eyes widened in horror. It turns out she has a phobia about cockroaches. Fortunately, I am at least as heroic as Sgt Giunta, and I swiftly ended it’s reign of terror. I am fearless, and in the realm of the natural world I am scared only of rats, frogs, snakes, some birds, and of course anything larger than a domestic kitty cat.
The staff at the hospital sprang into action, mortified that there was a cockroach in that anti-septic facility. Cpt Sullivan could not stop apologizing at the breach in hygiene, but actually I think that the insect was brought in by one of Joao’s colleagues just landed from Afghanistan……