February 24, 1991, and I wait. I wait on the edge of my cot under the pitched canopy of my far-away canvas home; its sides pulsating from the ever-present wind; sand somehow traversing the walls, everything inside airbrushed a pastel tan; outside the surrounding Saudi Arabian desert limitless in all directions. The winds of war have been blowing, and the time has come. There are 10 of us inside the tent, all physicians, all waiting, all far from home and our families, all wondering, all asking the same questions of themselves – What will it be like? Do I have what it takes? Will I stand firm and do my job when the Black Hawk helicopters blacken the sky with wounded soldiers? The first Gulf War has begun. Operation Desert Shield has now become Operation Desert Storm.
I am chief of medicine for a 400 bed Army field hospital just south of the Iraqi border. For months we have meticulously planned and prepared to receive 600 plus casualties each day brought directly from the battlefield by the Black Hawks. Nurses, corpsmen, techs have been cross-trained to do whatever is required so the doctors could be where they are needed most. I am responsible for triage. The weight of that responsibility fully upon me, even palpable, and the questions come. I write my mother and father and tell them I love them. I wonder how my father, a combat veteran of two tours in Vietnam, did what he did. And I wait.
Decades later, I wait again. We are again at war. This time with a relentless, invisible, merciless enemy – a virus never before seen. No immunity, a pandemic. COVID-19 has become part of our everyday vernacular. We hear the projections – millions infected and hundreds of thousands of dead; it is surreal, incomprehensible, unprecedented. What is true; what is not? What to do; what not to do? I think of the physicians, nurses, PAs, NPs, the hospital staff now on the front lines, in harm’s way, waiting as well, asking the same questions I did so many years ago. Many are my friends. The “peak” is yet to come, and we wait. The wait is the hardest, at least for me. But the waiting will soon end, and when it does, the questions will be answered, and “new heroes” will emerge. Let us thank them now as they wait and as they fight.
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