dignity in the desert

by Karen Kolb

melissa thomas

spring 2016


“Just keep breathing”

My last words

To a girl who spoke English as a second language,

Maybe third.

Did she hear me? Were her ears open?

As she gasped and wheezed

Through the tube

Protruding from her neck

A sign I took for positive -

No one squeezing air into her

Breathing on her own.

Small frame on a bulky green litter

Being lifted into the backseat of a vehicle.


Sweat soaking my uniform

In the dusty Iraqi wasteland -

My heart rate still racing

A sandstorm coursing through my veins

From the explosion minutes before

A war scene unfolding before my eyes

No movie screen shielding me from the inferno.


“Just keep breathing”

Not profound words, encouragement

In stark contrast to the sharp tone of the physician’s assistant

Discouraging us moments before -

“Don’t bother, that’s not what’s going to kill her.”

I grabbed trauma sheers

Sliced through smoky camouflaged pants in jagged lines

Reached for a bandage with a shaky hand

Pressing down on a wound oozing yellow

Not registering the exposed fat on her thigh,

Only prepared to see red.


The medic across from me

Met my quick, frantic glance

His eyes shared the same desperation

We couldn’t help her breathe

But her clothes would no longer scorch and singe her

Her legs would be bandaged

Not exposed.

Dignity in the desert.


“Just keep breathing”

My voice trembling like a rambling tank

I closed the door to the truck

For her drive up the road

To catch the ride on the helicopter,

That would never take he