Marine Lance Corporal Hiram Mathers was due to get turned. He was on a Stryker frame. The apparatus was actually a hospital bed. It consisted of two huge 6-foot diameter circular wheels of 2-inch shiny steel tubing with a padded cot in between. It looked like a giant silver and green yo-yo. For Christmas, red and green ribbon was wrapped around the giant tubular wheels. The Stryker bed was for quadriplegics. Matthers had taken a bullet to his cervical spine at the level of the 7th vertebra during an ambush at a village on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. It severed his spinal cord. That was 2-months ago. He was sent to Yokosuka Naval Hospital, Japan for decompressive surgery and stabilization. Initially he needed assisted breathing from a machine but now he was on the green Byrd respirator 1-hour out of every eight. He had come in on the Christmas Eve air-evac by train from Fort Dix as a Christmas present to his parents from President Nixon.
“Okay Mathers, it’s time for the green Byrdie.” The corpsman put Mathers chart on a nearby chair. “But first I gotta turn you right side up.”
Mathers was horizontal on the cot-like 7-foot long, 4-feet wide firm, padded mattress frame. His head was supported by a cotton, Webril-covered donut which was part of the aluminum framed mattress. His whole body was facing the floor. Huxley, also dressed in the white work uniform, assisted with re-connecting the respirator during the turning.
“I’ll clamp his Foley catheter and disconnect for the turning.” Hospital Corpsman Ralph Hanes looked at the urine bag and noted that it was cloudy with some sediment. “This should clear up” Hanes reassured Mathers. “The neurosurgeon put you on antibiotics when you came in yesterday.” He flipped the toggle switch and the bed turned completely around with a non-irritant high pitch electronic whine. The framed mattress had to be turned every 8-hours to avoid the formation of pressure sores or decubitus ulcers. The soft whirring of the inside of the circular frame turning Mathers a complete 180- degrees ended with a sharp click as it reached its next 8-hour arc. Hanes reconnected the urine bag tubing to the indwelling Foley bladder catheter. “You’ll be able to eat now.” Hanes was matter-of-fact with the neuro patients. They regressed with sympathy and pity. He treated them like a patient–any patient. Mathers was now facing the ceiling. Mathers had to be hand fed by the corpsman or the nurse. The staff always made it sound like the paralyzed patients still had some control. They preferred not to say, ‘You’ll be able to be fed now.’
There were eight other quadriplegics in the neurosurgical ward. Spinal cords had been severed by shrapnel, a punji stick, a bayonet, a fall from a helicopter and machinegun-fire. These young men were some of the true tragedies of war.
“I’m gonna set the inspiratory force as light as possible.” Huxley looked down at the patient. “You’ll be triggering the machine by yourself. I’ll be back in an hour to disconnect you so you’ll be able to talk during visiting hours.” Mathers had a permanent tracheostomy. When the Byrd machine was attached no air went between his vocal cords and therefore he would have no voice until he was disconnected from the breathing apparatus. Huxley looked at his watch. Thirty-minutes until the first incident.
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