Monday, October 3, 2016

Corpsman Chronicles X: Connection

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.


  1. Replies
    1. And the flonase doesn't help at all. Some parts of life are heartbreaking.

  2. Will comply with request. Badger Paw Salute to you, Sir!

    1. Thanks Scott. Just a little touch of kindness would be a very big thing indeed.

  3. WOW What a story. RIP SIR... I didn't serve because of health reasons but I wanted to. Dad was on the Indy in the seventies. He's gone now too.

    1. We all serve when we recognize and cherish the humanity of our fellow human beings.

  4. Wayne was one of the guys that you could not help but know and like! On a ship the size of the Coral Sea you never get the chance to know everyone, after all there were almost 5000 people running around in various shops doing what they do to keep the ship doing what it needs to do, but I think most people knew Wayne. He was the guy in the chow line that always had a smile and a joke. He knew no stranger and was every guys kind of guy. He was just a kid, heck we were all just kids, were were out there doing the job of the Navy. I remember that day, a sad day. It was one of those storms that you just don't forget. When a ship the size of a carrier is tossed around like that and most operations are secured because of it, well, that is a hell of a storm. On that day I was TAD from the Photo Lab to the Master At Arms and I was on roving patrol about the ship. The call came over the 1MC of an emergency in hangerbay one and we all rushed there. My job was to limit access to the area so the medical team could get in and out without people getting in the way. I recall seeing people going in and out of the sponson area trying to safely get him off the Starboard side in-between hanger one and hanger two. We were worried that others could get washed off the sponson as well as the accident had removed the guard rail on that sponson. It too a short time but they were able to get him inside the hanger and placed him on the hangerbay deck. He was not moving or making a sound as I recall things so many years back. At this point my job was to disperse anyone not involved with saving Wayne's life and so I did. We set up a primiter around him and that was about the extent of my usefullness. I felt helpless to be able to do anything, but I knew that we had the best of the best working on him. In the beginning the corpsmen were running back and forth to medical for treatment bags and strechers and stuff as fast as the humanly could, but then after some time went by they ran a bit more slowly and the running became only a fast paced walk. I knew several of the guys on the medical staff as they and us on the Master At Arms were always responding to drills and emergencies together, so I kind of knew their expressions and I could see it in their eyes that it was not good. As they carried him past me on the stretcher through hanger one into hanger two one the way down to medical, I asked how is he? No one looked up and one guy just slowly shook his head as they made their way to medical. I did not know at the time it was Wayne, I just knew that a shipmate was hurt and it was the start of a bad day out to sea. It was a day or two later when word got around the ship that it was Wayne and then you felt the loss of that friend that always brought a smile in the chowline. RIP Brother.


    1. Thanks Robert, that's very well said. There's no doubt that the world was made a better place by Wayne's existence.

  5. Thank you for posting the story of the rescue and recovery attempts. I take it the picture is of the scar from Wayne's rib stabbing you? Sort of a reminder of how fragile and quick a life can be, but also of the super valiant efforts you took to help with everything you had. This young man's sister, Crystal, is a friend of mine. While I didn't know Wayne, I can see him in Crystal - same beautiful traits. Thanks again.

    1. Thank you Meg. Yes that's the scar. I've been amazed and humbled by following the facebook comments; so many loving, caring and giving people in Crystal's life and in Wayne's life even 28 years later. Really strengthens my belief in my fellow Americans and in the possibilities in our collective future. Thanks again.

  6. I remember this all too well. It is my equipment that killed him. I don't know if I will ever get over this.

    1. Hang in there shipmate. It was the sea that killed him, plain and simple. Many of us have similar feelings, that if only we'd done something different, or better, then it would have never happened or had a better outcome. But no, it was the sea. The sea that sailors have always loved has always killed sailors without remorse.

  7. Oh my goodness. My husband served on the Coral Sea with VA-65, but I was a surgical nurse back here at home. I worked in some intense Level I trauma centers, and I can feel every word of your recount of that day. I have lived that scenario except for one thing. The ground underneath me was not moving. Your service and all those with you is no less than outstanding. You might think people forgot you, but we didn't. And we wont forget Wayne either. 10/16/16 Bravo Zulu

  8. Replies
    1. Mick ( Rory ) Typewriter repair shopOctober 7, 2016 at 5:36 PM

      I was on board at that time, a quiet hush went over the ship for a time. I did not know Wayne, knowing now we share a birthday. Wayne will be remembered as requested.

    2. Thanks!

      You were in the typewriter repair shop? You're right about the reaction on the ship. I made floats on several carriers and that crew on that deployment was the tightest I ever experienced.

      Hope you have a great birthday, and thanks for remembering Wayne.

  9. Thanks for the story. I was one of the first ones on the scene. I was also one of the stretcher bears. I didn't know what happened in Medical until now. Thank you for your effort. You did the best you could have done.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Ken. What a day. Thanks for being a stretcher bearer and a good shipmate.

    2. You are welcome. Haze grey and underway.