Breaking the Silence of Stigma: The Hero Who Lost the War

January, 1991.  Ba’athist Iraqis had invaded Kuwait.  Unprepared for invasion, the Kuwaitis fled helter-skelter, leaving everything behind.  The Iraqis occupied all strategic positions, including schools–and hospitals.

Hospital staff came under fire and were forced to flee.  Patients were abandoned, and those on life support were doomed.

And the babies in the newborn nurseries, the neonatal intensive care unit, were abandoned as well.  Unsubstantiated witness testimonies tell of babies being dumped out of incubators and left to die.  The stories are now discredited as part of a propaganda campaign, but there is one witness whose testimony was never revealed, because he operated under a thick cloak of secrecy.  He was the one who liberated the babies.

My friend, my comrade, my co-worker and partner pediatrician.  I cannot reveal his name, so I will call him Larry.

Larry joined the Air Force ROTC in high school, and continued in college.  He won an Air Force scholarship to medical school, and went on to complete his residency in pediatrics.  When the time came for him to enter active service, the war that was to become the Gulf War, including Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, was heating up.

Larry didn’t see much direct action at first, since he was stationed in Germany, caring for children at the military base and the occasional child war casualty airlifted for advanced pediatric care.

But in January and February of 1991, a Coalition of Western forces brought the mayhem to a halt.  And Larry was one of the first called to the front.

His mission:  to rescue the babies who were still alive in the hospital.

In the dead of night he clung to the helicopter’s rope line.  He dropped to his feet on the roof of the hospital.  Entering by way of the main air vent, he found his way to the nursery. He had memorized the layout of the hospital, and found the nursery in pitch dark.  He had to be quick in his triage assessment:  which babies would live without help, which would likely die no matter what was done for them, and which tiny lives could be saved if they were evacuated quickly.

Scooping up two babies at a time, he made his way back to the hovering helicopter basket.  He tugged twice on the rope, the signal to carefully raise the basket into the machine, where neonatal nurses waited, to immediately begin working on the babies while Larry went back for more.

He rescued more than ten babies before Iraqi soldiers discovered him, and he had to evacuate.  He never stopped crying for those he was forced to abandon.

The chopper, laden with precious cargo, flew back to its base. The babies were transferred to a fixed-wing aircraft and flown to Germany, where Larry took over their care.  Miraculously, all of them lived, and even more miraculously, most were reunited with their Kuwaiti parents after the war ended and Kuwaitis returned to their homes.

Larry’s tour of duty was over.  He was, of course, highly decorated for his acts of heroism.  And he returned home, to marry his high school sweetheart and adjust to civilian life.  Soon four children filled their house with welcome clamor.

I met Larry in 1996, when I took a job in the clinic where he was employed as a general pediatrician.  It was my great fortune to share a “pod” with him, as sub-sections of the huge pediatrics clinic were called.  We were pod-mates.  I loved working with Larry.  He was as humble as he was brilliant.  Whenever one of us had a perplexing case, we would call on the other to “think together”  until our united brains found a solution.  We were a great team.

One day Larry approached me as I sat at my desk writing up a chart.  His face looked pinched and worried.

“Laura, can you help me out?” he asked in a furtive whisper.  “I’ve been feeling depressed.  Can you write me for some meds?”

I must admit that I was shocked.  Not that he would disclose that he was depressed; I suffered from bipolar illness myself, although no one at the clinic knew it. I had the feeling that it would be sudden death to my career to disclose that.  So I understood Larry’s dilemma.  But I could not stand in the place of a psychiatrist, and I was shocked that Larry, who never took risks with patients, would be taking such a risk with himself, asking a colleague to medicate him for depression.  I had my own shrink, although in another city, whom I paid out-of-pocket so that there would be no insurance records.  I was taken aback that he would ask me to do something so dangerous and unethical.  I knew he had to be in unbearable pain to do something that went completely against his grain, as a physician.

“Larry, you need to see a psychiatrist,” I whispered back.  “I’m no substitute for a shrink.”

“Laura, please,” Larry begged, tears welling up.  “Just enough to get me through, so I can make an appointment.  Please.  Things are bad at home.  I’m fucking up.  I have to start feeling better, or I’m going to lose my family.”

I couldn’t let him suffer like that.  After extracting a promise from him that he would see a psychiatrist within the week, I wrote him a script for an antidepressant.

As the week progressed, Larry’s mood seemed to lift.  He worked like a fiend, whistling as he shuttled between exam rooms.  I wondered if he had made his appointment.  He never told me.  I never asked.

It was my day off.  I was getting ready to go skiing, and just as I opened the door to leave the house the phone rang.

I didn’t like it.  The phone never rang at nine in the morning.  The kids?  My husband?  My parents?  What?

It was the clinic administrator.

“Laura, can you please come in?  Larry didn’t show up for work this morning.”

My heart hit my feet.

“OK, I’ll be right there.”  I put down the phone and numbly changed into my work clothes.  I drove the ten minutes to the clinic, heart pounding, sweating in the frozen Western winter.

When I arrived at the clinic, a police cruiser was waiting in the parking lot.

“Dr. L, can we speak with you for a minute?” asked the uniformed officer.

“Of course.”  I lead the way to the administrator’s office.  The administrator sat in his office chair, tanned skin drawn tight over his bony face.

“What’s this about, Dick?” I demanded of the administrator.

“It’s Larry,” he said.  “His wife called in a missing person report last night when he didn’t come home from work.  He was found this morning in a motel.  He shot himself with his military .45.”  And Dick came as close as I ever saw him to crying.

“Dr. L., do you have any information that might help us understand why Larry would take his own life?” asked the officer.

I told him about Larry’s depression, and that he had asked me for help, and that I had written him for a week’s worth of medication on the condition that he seek psychiatric help.

“Thank you, Dr. L., that is very helpful,” said the officer respectfully, hat in hand.  I wondered if he was going to arrest me for giving Larry that script.  I felt bad.  Real bad.  But the clinic administrator reassured me, told me that I had done nothing wrong and could have done nothing to prevent what happened.

My dear friend Larry.  He was a true war hero, but he lost the war of mental illness.  For fear of being discovered.  For fear of being ostracized by his church.  For fear of losing his job and his family.  He lost it all.

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15 Comments

  1. This was and is truly heartbreaking. I have been privileged to talk to many vets of different conflicts and all feel the same pain to some degree or another. Wars are hateful and unjust on those who have no choice but to become embroiled in them. I am glad (a poor word I know) that he was able to seek you out for a brief respite.
    Blessings Susan x

    Reply
  2. A powerful story………..it certainly shows how the stigma of mental illness can destroy a life. If Larry hadn’t worried about the stigma, I wonder if he would have sought help sooner. Thank you for sharing such a powerful story.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Sherlock. Yes, I’m certain that the stigma and fear of “discovery” destroyed him, and if not for that he would be alive and still saving other lives today.

      Reply
  3. Both a toucing and a heartwrenching account of a brave man and a hero. Thank you for sharing with us

    Reply
  4. Such a powerful, sad story. A man who saved so many but couldn’t save himself…….society with all our stigma let him down. Thank you for sharing, and I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend.

    Reply
  5. Hello! I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award because I think that you keep an awesome blog.

    If you choose to accept the award, he’s what you’re ‘supposed’ to do:

    1. Display the Award Certificate on your blog.
    2. Announce your win with a post. Make sure to post a link back to me as a ‘thank you’ for the nomination.
    3. Present 15 awards to deserving bloggers.
    4. Drop them a comment to tip them off after you have linked them in the post.
    5. Post 7 interesting things about yourself.

    I don’t actually expect anyone to pass it on if they don’t want to. But I still wanted to express my appreciation for your contributions to blogging.

    I'm sure you've probably gotten this dozen of times, but I'd be remiss if I missed acknowledging you!

    Reply
    • Thanks Raeyn! To be honest, I don’t know where I could possibly find the time to do it, but I’m very sincerely touched that you thought of me! Big hugs!

      Reply
      • If you do, you do. If you don’t, you don’t — I certainly appreciate you’ve got a lot going on! ❤

        Reply
  6. Good of you to tell Larry’s story. I am sure there are many others that go untold. We get so admired for the battles we are seen to be fighting on the outside, but there is not much to be seen of the often much harder war on the inside.
    Thank you for sharing this story.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Lunch. That is an insightful comment. Although it was gut-wrenching, I felt privileged to be part of the inside story of this valiant warrior.

      Reply
  7. Living up to his hero image and pediatrician image and husband image is a lot to ask of anyone. Healthcare workers are viewed as automatons and mental illness is viewed with deep suspicion by staff and patients alike. But we are not automatons, we suffer as much as any first responder profession. And we deny our issues more then most. A vicious cycle.

    Reply

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