Comfort Amid Cruelty

by MAJOR ERIC AHNFELDT, United States Army

Vector illustration for OCF story about combat surgeon in Afghanistan

 

As a Christian surgeon deployed to Afghanistan, some tragedies will forever be burned into my memory. One such experience happened during a mass casualty situation. A vehicle-borne IED detonated in a public place, killing several Afghanis and injuring eight, including a six-year-old boy. Alerted we would soon receive these patients for care, we warmed up the emergency room, and like a NASCAR pit crew, we took our respective places.  

 

Before long, the sound of two arriving Black Hawk helicopters thundered throughout the ER. The trauma teams quickly and skillfully began treating the incoming patients—securing airways, placing chest tubes, starting IVs, and taking X-rays while assessing injuries.  

Among the eight patients brought into the operating room was a sixty-five-year-old male who had shrapnel wounds in his abdomen, chest, and neck. We explored his abdomen, looking for wounds and opening up the cardiac sac to make sure his heart wasn’t bleeding. We then washed and closed the thirty wounds shredding his body from the embedded glass pieces that had blasted out of the IED when it exploded. 

When the boy was brought in, a chest tube was inserted to treat a wound from an apparent glass fragment that ripped through his chest, collapsing a lung before exiting out through his spine and severing his spinal cord in the process. He had collapsed helpless on the ground, unable to take a deep enough breath to yell for help, and started suffocating. By the time his nearby father rushed to him, oxygen deprivation had already caused the child’s brain to swell, irreparably damaging it.

The father scooped up his bleeding, asphyxiating son, and rushed him to the casualty collection point. Not until receiving a chest tube and being hooked up to a ventilator did the boy begin to breathe again. 

But the damage was already done. 

Still wearing my scrub cap and OR attire, I walked over to the young boy and placed my hand on his little foot. Fighting back tears, thinking of my own son, I bowed my head and prayed that God would care for this child, knowing that he was in His hands.  My prayer continued with a request that the family would recover from such a devastating loss. 

Leaving the OR, I headed over to the intensive care unit. There in the middle of ICU—where American ICU and ER nurses quickly, meticulously attended to five other bleeding and burned patients—the bewildered father sat beside his boy’s bed, his traditional Afghan clothing soaked by his son’s blood. 

Still wearing my scrub cap and OR attire, I walked over to the young boy and placed my hand on his little foot. Fighting back tears, thinking of my own son, I bowed my head and prayed that God would care for this child, knowing that he was in His hands.  My prayer continued with a request that the family would recover from such a devastating loss.  The father still had no idea what was in store for his boy. With my hand still on the boy’s foot, tears welling up in my eyes, I prayed for my family, that God would keep them safe. And I prayed God would help me recover from witnessing the cruelty of mankind that was afflicted on the little boy and his devastated father.

As I opened my eyes, the child’s father looked up at me and slightly bowed his head, to which I returned the gesture. With that I turned and walked over to my other patients, made sure the ventilator settings were correct, and then left the room. 

The rest of the night was a blur as I continued caring for the new patients we treated. Despite my fatigue and running on adrenaline, I managed to call home about 2 a.m.  Now mid-morning in Texas, my wife had just finished breakfast with our young children. I cried as I heard my son’s little voice ask his mother if daddy was on the phone. I could barely speak when he said hello.

Even after two deployments, I still don’t understand how mankind can be so cruel and thoughtless. My only comfort comes in this hope—knowing that God loves and cares for that little Afghan boy. And when that boy dies a week or two later after leaving the care of an American hospital, God will take his little hand, make his mangled body whole—and welcome him into glory. 

 

Eric served our nation in 2010 as a trauma surgeon in Iraq and the following year in Afghanistan. He received his commission in 2000 through the Health Professions Scholarship program, attended Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine, and did his general surgery residency at Fort Bliss, Texas. Assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, Eric and his wife, Kari, live there with their two children. 

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