I have a small scar on the inside of my left forearm. It connects me, in a profoundly intimate way, with a young man I never knew.
January 31, 1988.
|USS Coral Sea, January 31, 1988.|
I was the single hospital corpsman shared between a pair of A-6 Intruder squadrons, VA-55 and VA-65, the Warhorses and World Famous Fighting Tigers, respectively. The squadrons were part of Carrier Air Wing 13, which also included three F/A-18 Hornet squadrons, an E-2C Hawkeye squadron, An EA-6B squadron, and HS-17, Neptune's Raiders, an ASW helo squadron flying the Sikorsky SH-3H Sea King. We were deployed in USS Coral Sea (CV-43).
On this, my seventh major carrier deployment, I was assigned to work in main medical, which for the most part meant seeing sick call and running (more or less) the ship's treatment room, which was the equivalent of an emergency room. I also flew with HS-17 on Search and Rescue, Medevac, and plane guard missions.
At 0700 on January 31 the ship was fighting through uncharacteristically stormy seas in the central Mediterranean. The storm was a big one and the Ageless Warrior was closed up tight, sailing into the heavy seas. White water was coming over the bow, lashing the jets and helos chained to the deck with heavy weather tie downs. The weather was so severe that flying had been curtailed, and the weather decks and sponsons were secured. It was far too dangerous for men to venture outside the confines of the ship.
A few minutes after a particularly severe wave-crashing shudder, "Medical Emergency" was called over the 1-MC. A man had been securing equipment in the hangar bay when a wave smashed open a hatch. Tons of seawater had lifted a piece of ground support equipment and flung it across the hangar, crushing the man against an armored bulkhead. The medical response team dashed off. Reports began coming in, and they weren't good.
"Can't get an airway."
As the stretcher bearers bustled into the treatment room with the injured sailor, the surgeon took one look and told me to scrub.
"You'll have to rub his heart."
I scrubbed and donned gloves.
With the casualty on the table the surgeon called for a knife, then slashed the chest open on the left side.
As I turned from donning my gloves I heard the ratcheting sound of the rib spreader opening, allowing access to the heart. I slid my hands into the sailor's chest and clasped the heart between opposing palms. The heart should have been turgid with blood and beating, but it was flaccid and still.
"Heart's flat," I reported.
The surgeon glanced at me and mimed "heart compression" with his bloody hands, then quickly performed a stab thoracotomy on the right side of the chest. The internal pressure of hemorrhage in the chest was relieved, finally making it possible to get air in. The nurse anesthetist quickly placed an endotracheal tube and began squeezing the ambu bag.
As I compressed the heart, I could feel the left lung inflating. A good sign?
The ship was still shuddering and moving about. On the floor of the treatment room a pool of blood began to grow, supplied by a steady stream flowing out of the young man's mangled torso.
The ship took a big, shuddering, three-dimensional roll, and with the deck slick with blood it was all the medical team could do to keep the casualty on the table. As the ship lurched it's complex motion caused the unresponsive man to roll to his left, toward me. My hands were buried deep in his chest, rhythmically squeezing his heart. As he rolled, a shattered rib bone stabbed into the flesh of my left forearm. In that situation it was less than a minor inconvenience. I continued massaging his heart. What else would I do? We were all working as hard as we possibly could to keep our shipmate alive.
A pair of flight surgeons started large bore IV's, one in each arm, and began administering Ringer's Lactate as fast as it would flow. The gas passer injected a cocktail of medicines to make the heart beat and raise blood pressure.
Within my hands the sailor's heart began to quiver in fibrillation. Another good sign?
The heart quivered, then began to beat erratically. This lasted about 30 seconds. The heartbeat slowed, then the heart began once again to fibrillate. As room-temperature Ringer's Lactate replaced warm blood, I felt the sailor's heart began to cool.
Then it stopped fibrillating.
The senior medical officer stuck his head in the compartment.
"I've activated the walking blood bank," he said. "How much will we need?"
The surgeon glanced at the casualty and quickly, silently polled the treatment team. He sighed.
"We won't need any."
David Wayne Cornell was born on October 16, 1966, in Cairo, West Virginia. He would have turned 50 years old a week from this coming Sunday, but he died in Coral Sea 28 years ago, a little more than eight months shy of age 22.
I didn't know him. I'm sure I'd seen him around, and I'm pretty sure I'd seen him in sick call once, but I could be mistaken on that.
His family called him by his middle name, Wayne. His sister, Crystal, was just a little girl. She thought the world of her brother. January 31 was her birthday. While she was sleeping in West Virginia, perhaps dreaming in anticipation of a happy birthday celebration with cake and presents, I held Wayne's heart in my hands as it became finally and forever still.
He is buried in the Cairo, West Virginia IOOF Cemetery.
Through the modern miracle of social media, Crystal has invited people who knew Wayne to celebrate his 50th birthday on October 16 by committing a random act of kindness in his memory. She invited me to do so, even though I never really knew him, and I think it's a fine idea. I'd like to invite you readers to do the same, if you'd care to, and even though you surely didn't know Wayne either.
I'd also personally like to ask that you consider -- and I'm obviously stealing a famous phrase here -- but I'd ask that you consider taking increased devotion to that cause for which Wayne (and so many others) gave his last full measure of devotion.
Wayne has been gone for a long time. We were shipmates, but I didn't know him. Nevertheless, he will be with me until my time on Earth is done.