Saturday, 27 September 2008

A Nut of Excitement

Many of you have asked how I have been fairing with allergy...well now I've got a story for you.

I have been extremely diligent about managing the allergy in this environment. I compare it to eating in the dining hall at my university where you are served buffet style and the food is arranged in cases based on theme. Common sense dictates avoiding the islands that could be hazardous: Tai, Asian, desserts, stir fry, etc. It's much the same here. I have a sandwich or salad for lunch and for dinner sliced meat, rice and a vegetable. Plain and simple. I also each as much packaged food as possible since labeling is always a plus.  The major drawback here is not being able to pick up the phone and call 911 although there are emergency ambulance numbers and I live a 5 min walk from a 24 emergency clinic.

Well last week, Friday I believe it was, I found that my neck was irritated throughout my shift. I wouldn't say they were hives exactly but my skin was itchy and rash-like and I found myself holding the phone away from my ear so as not to chafe my neck.  I wasn't particularly concerned because with all the dust and weirdness out here, scratchy is not abnormal.  

By the end of the shift my left eye was starting to give me issues. It felt irritated and begged to be itched. I made it back to my CHU and climbed in bed to read and accidentally rubbed it. We went down hill from there. Although I washed my hands, washed out my eye and took a dose of Benadryl, the next day my left eye was completely swollen shut.  With another does of Benadryl, it was back to normal by the end of my shift but unnerving none the less. I have no explanation for the cause other than I came into contact with something my body didn't like.

Well having that encounter with a minor reaction dictated last night's course of events.  My teammate Kris went out to grab us dinner and came back around 12:30am with burgers and fries, a relatively common Friday night splurge for us. Around 1:30am I noticed that my throat felt constricted. It didn't itch, it didn't hurt, I had no hives anywhere, and I was breathing freely without wheezing. Despite my surprising lack of other symptoms the first thing that comes to mind with that sensation is a reaction. 

I went ahead and took a does of Benadryl but it made no impression. After pacing about the office for another half an hour trying to talk myself out of the fact that this could be a reaction, I decided to quit fighting and go the the "ER". Epi-pen in hand I told my concerned teammate that I just wanted to be there in case the reaction decided to go full blown on me. I jumped in the Explorer and was there in just a few minutes. 

So here was my first experience with deployed health care in a war zone. I pull up to the clinic and there's a solider outside using a laptop to project his unit's mascot onto a T-wall where he was painting over the digital image. Twilight zone. He asked me if I was alright and then pointed me through the right door. Inside I found the place deserted. I was in what appeared to be an intake room, but the lights had been dimmed and the desk was empty.

Thinking that I would shortly be dying I forged on into the area that said Restricted, Do Not Enter.  "Hello?" I called. "Is someone here"? At once I found myself surrounded by three uniformed soldiers that seemed absolutely baffled to see a young, blonde woman while at the same time noting that my face was swollen and that I was clearly trying to keep my voice steady. I rapidly explained about my history with anaphylaxis and that while I could not explain my lack of other symptoms, I did not like the way my throat felt. I could tell that they were as confused as I was by the way the medical condition was playing out, but I did my best to tell them that I was VERY familiar with Epi-pens and ICUs and suffocating to death from a reaction and after a few minutes I think I had them fully convinced.

They went and woke up the doctor, a Major, whose combat trauma services, I was told, were sought by injured servicemembers at all the FOBs. I soon learned that I was surrounded by combat medics who were used to mortars and rockets and IED injuries and not this more unique, temperamental condition. I was subjected to my first battlefield triage experience when the combat medic started the IV. He stuck that sucker into me like I had the constitution of Rambo and he the finesse drunken sailor.

The doctor ordered me a round of steroids, told me they'd monitor me for the next four hours and that I was not be left only. This last point caused a dilemma when I went through my first IV bag and had to pee like a racehorse. I told my dear attentive staff sergeant that I needed to use the ladies room and he nodded, unhooked my IV bag, handed the bag to me and said "the latrine is outside on your left, don't trip on the IV tube" Errrr okay?  So I walked myself back out into the dusty desert night and went over to the coed latrine where once inside I hooked my IV bag on a nail that had been hammered into the plastic stalls.  I can't say it lacked for the character. I wanted the real thing, I got it. Twice more I made that trip after 2 IV bags. 

Over the course of the next few hours my throat did not improve which resulted in a new round of steroids around 4:30am and my increased frustration with my throat. Was this even a reaction? Why did I feel like I had a noose around my neck but with no other symptoms? I sat with the medics who regaled me with grizzly stories about their deployments, about casualties and rocket injuries. They are currently still treating rocket injuries on a weekly basis from people who have been hit on base which was a disconcerting thought and they advised that when Ramadan ends on the 3, be ready. Alrighty then.

About this time I began to panic about the car situation. I had driven our only car to the TMC and the next teammate needed the car to drive to work. I managed to convince my new combat friends to not only drive the car back to my pad, but to walk the keys up to my teammate's door. This created a new flourish of activity which included my poor bleary eyed teammate announcing herself in my room 15 min later to ensure that I was still alive. After convincing her that things were under control, she agreed to go over and fill in our team leader and that I should be out of there by 6:30am.

By 5:30am my throat had loosened enough and the doctor gave me the green light. The disconcerting ending to this story is that we still have no explanation from my throat tightening. It is common enough for me to have mild reactions, but not one so internal that involves the constriction of my throat. The good news is that now, almost 24 hours later I feel fine apart from a steroid headache and my bruised and blood-blistered IV arm. I'm heading back over tonight to thank the medics and give them some Starbucks and one of our challenge coins.  Although it isn't exactly an experience I look forward to repeating, it's one more tale I can bring back from my time in Iraq. 

Friday, 26 September 2008


It seems that the Air Force has knocked out our "cable" indefinitely. Granted we only had about 8 channels (at least 3 of which only broadcasted military propaganda--a blog post I am working on) but it was an escape to the familiar and a world outside this extreme place :-(

Now we are relegated to only the local Arabic channels which certainly authenticates the experience, but I feel very cut off from the world. Especially with everything that is going on in the States right now and The Debates this weekend, I am cursing the timing!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Grande White Chocolate Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino Blended Creme, please

Although I am not a coffee drinker, I have always found the aroma of this pungent bean somehow comforting.  Well comfort now abounds in Baghdad as yesterday we witnessed the arrival of almost 5,000 lbs of Starbucks coffee courtesy of our American Red Cross corporate partnership with the company. We received 6 pallets of the grounds, each weighing between 600 and 800 lbs and the majority of which is now stored in the conex out by our office.

Now I should explain that the military units know about this lucrative partnership with the coffee giant and I can attest that from the first 24 hours I spent in Baghdad I was interrogated as to where we were hiding the coffee. I remember vividly sitting in the Green Bean Coffee just 24 hours after arriving in Iraq and being approached by a group of soldiers inquiring when they could pick up more coffee. 

Well now that we are back in the distribution business we are trying to keep this high demand product as hush-hush as possible for fear of an onslaught by units driving over pick up trucks to haul away caseloads of the valuable substance...which is apparently what happened with the last shipment! So we are surreptitiously trying to both distribute the coffee to the remote FOBs (Forward Operating Base) in which a high class luxury like Starbucks is merely a memory while at the same time trying to come up with a plan to distribute locally without total pandemonium.

More to come on this I suspect... 


Thursday, 18 September 2008

Fluorescent Orange Tangerine

You may have occasionally heard me say that there is a pronounced lack of color and beauty here. Well I have been seriously put in my place about the allegation of no color, we have been having unrelenting sandstorms since the beginning of the week which is something akin to a snowstorm in terms of visibility.  However, typically I think disgusting would be adjective I'd pick to describe a sandstorm as opposed to breathtaking to describe snow. 

The sand hangs heavy in the air which blocks all the sunlight and the earthen particles fly up into your nostrils, into your eyes, when you swallow your throat has a gritty, charred taste and when you run your hands through your hair a lovely flaking of not dandruff, but dust drifts off your head.

This time, however, I awoke in the afternoon at 3:00pm and opened my door to head to the women's latrine. Before me looked like something out of a Stephen King movie or a scene from Nightmare on Elm Street. Everything around me, the sky, the air and all the objects in view were tinted a fluorescent orange tangerine color. Nothing retained it's original color, it was like walking through an eerie nightmare. You couldn't see someone approaching until the emerged out of the stagnant orange mist and they were gone just as soon as they appeared. It was an incredible phenomenon.

Today I awoke to sunny skies and heavy heat and we are officially back to Baghdad weather. Which I confess is quite fortunate because the sandstorms really shut things down. There is no mail, no shipment of food or items for the PX, but I stand corrected on desert colors. Orange was a site to see.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Challenge Coin

A week ago today I received my first challenge coin, a symbol of camaraderie, respect and appreciation in the military and from General Petraeus' Command Sergeant Major no less! We had arranged a meeting last Thursday morning at 10:30am to wish him farewell and good luck as he and Petraeus finish their tour in Iraq. 

We drove to the Al-Faw Palace which is considered to be command central for the operations in Iraq. We met with CSM Hill, a jovial man who laughed a lot and was surprisingly sociable for someone with such responsibility. Before leaving he presented each of us with a challenge coin, a heavy coin about the size of a silver dollar with the insignia of his command, Multi-National Forces Iraq emblazoned on the medallion.

You may be interested to know some of the history of the challenge coin as it is a tradition now embedded in the military, to the extent that even the Red Cross has had coins made. The story, mostly legend, reads as follows:

During WW I, air warfare was a new phenomenon and pilots came from all walks of life. One of the wealthier lieutenants ordered small, solid-bronze medallions crafted which he presented to the member of his squadron. The coin was of unusual value for the time and one of the pilots tucked the coin into a leather pouch he wore around his neck for safe-keeping. As the story goes, this pilot's aircraft was damaged, he went down behind enemy lines and was then taken prisoner by the Germans. The enemy removed all personal effects from the soldier, but missed the leather pouch. As he was being transported to a permanent detention facility, the British attacked and the airman was able to escape. He donned civilian entire and made his way towards safety when he was picked up by a French patrol who believed him to be a German spy and with no identification, the air man had no proof of his nationality. Desperate to save himself from execution, the pilot pulled out the coin and showed it to his captors. One of the Frenchmen recognized the insignia from the airman's unit and spared his life. 

Once the pilot returned to his squadron, it became a tradition for soldiers to carry their coins at all times. The ensure compliance, the pilots would challenge each other to produce the coin. If the challenged could not produce the coin, he was required to buy a drink for the challenger; if the challenged could produce the coin it was the challenger who bought the drink. Over the years, the coins have come to serve as rewards or awards or to build morale among units. It was thus, with thanks and appreciate for the work of the Red Cross in Iraq, I received my very first challenge coin.

Appropriately, just a few days later, I also happened to give away my very first challenge coin to a Specialist with the 300 MP Battalion who is departing Iraq in just about 2 weeks. He was a particularly good-natured guy who took Red Cross messages for the 300th and who was always patient, efficient and most importantly, good-humored about his work. I'll miss his cheerfulness and wish him good luck when he's gone.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Under the weather, and no thanks to the weather

Wow, can I tell you that the desert is NOT the place to get sick. I've been fighting this bug since Monday now and it's bad enough that I am sneezing and coughing and feel like I've been hit by a humvee, but the heat exacerbates that feeling and makes you feel dizzy and nauseated. At the same time, the lovely baby-powder fine dust swirls into your nostrils and eyes and throat and leads to the feeling of being plugged up and choking. And to top it all off, we work 7 days a week here and if I were to request a day off it would mean that someone on my team would have to extend there already demanding shift which would probably result in their getting sick and initiating a cycle of sickness...and guilt.
Alas...come on antibodies, tough it up!

Monday, 1 September 2008

A Day of Sweet Labor

So as you might imagine, holidays go largely uncelebrated in a war zone.  Knowing that everyone on base would spend Labor Day not at BBQs drinking beer with family and friends, but in a foreign desert toiling away just as any other day, I plotted to do something unique on Labor Day. 

Although we do have a grill at our office, we didn't have the man power to do a full fledged BBQ so I aimed to come up with a similar alternative. I have no idea where this idea came from since we live in a perpetual furnace, but somewhere in the recesses of my mind I connected BBQ with toasting S'mores. And there you had it, an unusual taste of home and a tribute to the coming fall.

The trick was would we be able to get the supplies--because there in lay the novelty of s'mores. There is rarely, if ever, a chocolate bar to be found on base since they simply can't stand the heat during transport over and marshmellows?  Why? So I contacted the one person who I knew had the determination to make my plan momma. Within 24 hours she had shipped us a box with packages of graham crackers, chocolate bars and lovely marshmellows.  

I am pleased to say the ingredients survived the trip (although the chocolate had melted and the bars arrived totally deformed-they perked up after refrigeration though). To build our camp fire, my teammates and I took two weeks worth of the confidential material with are tasked to burn as the method of confiscation and made a bonfire in our burn barrel. And finally, since there are certainly no trees in Iraq that bear sticks I shimmied the American flags off of our 4th of July decorations and used the wooden poles of the flags to serve as sticks. Hey, this is for bettering the morale of the soldiers serving the flag right?! Circle of life.

And our evening was a success with so many commenting on how long it had been since they'd had a s'more and how on earth did we come up with the ingredients. The telephone company that sponsors our calling center was offering free calling all day long so the office was packed and there we were, gathered around a fire in the 115 degree heat toasting the end of another summer in Iraq.