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How Does it Feel to Save a Life?

Photo of doctors (from left) Steve Murphy, Peter Galpin and Hashim Hashem who saved the life of a young girl wounded during the First Afghan War.From left: Doctors Steve Murphy, Peter Galpin and
Hashim Hashem saved the life of a young girl
wounded during the First Afghan War.
Photo courtesy Peter Galpin.

It's about 2 a.m. A cold winter wind is blowing beneath the door to my room. The voice outside my door is filled with urgency.

 

"Dr. Peter, come quick."


It's 1988, and not for the first or last time I wonder what I'm doing here: 9,000 feet high in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan, dead of winter. We're about 10 miles "as the crow flies" from the Russian garrison at Khost, and 50 miles from the major Russian bases at Kabul.

 

"Dr. Peter, come quick."

 

I can hear gunfire in the distance. I pull on some ice cold clothes, jump into my wheelchair and head for the door. I can hear the incessant beeping of a truck horn at the gate. Security personnel are sweeping the vehicle and its passengers, looking for bombs and weapons. Once through the gate, the passengers are checked again. They are carrying a small bundle.

 

Dr. Steve Murphy is already there. Steve is an unflappable, compassionate, technically excellent surgeon from Massachusetts. We wait for Dr. Hashim Hashem, former chief of surgery at Kabul University, before he and his family fled the Russian invasion. We wait to see what the night has brought us.

 

The bundle is unwrapped inside our ER. We see a small girl, not more than two. She has been shot. The bullet entered one side of her abdomen and exited the other. She is awake, but silent: not a good sign. She doesn't struggle or cry as we get an IV going and begin resuscitation.

 

In surgery, we find the bullet has missed all the major organs. However, in its meandering course through the abdomen, it has perforated the small intestine multiple times. The intestine has been leaking contents for several hours. It's a critical injury even if this were a Level I Trauma Center in the U.S., not a makeshift hospital made of mudbricks. We remove a significant portion of the girl's small intestine, and wash out her abdominal cavity. The incision is closed by large retention sutures.


She needs several more surgeries to stabilize her condition. We improvise from what we have in the middle of nowhere. She is very sick and injured but somehow she pulls through.

 

Steve, Hashim and I all returned to the States, and got on with our lives. Hashim started over as a surgical intern because all his documents were lost in the war.

 

The child continues to be in our thoughts. Steve and I had a chance to get together a couple of years ago, and we talked about her. She would be in her 20s (if she survived the war and the Taliban). We felt great to have saved a child; it is like putting a note into a bottle and throwing it into the ocean. You don't know where it goes or who will find it. You never know what effect your actions have had or where that life will lead.

 

-- Peter Galpin, M.D., FACS (B.A., '80) decided to become a surgeon while serving two combat tours in Vietnam as a Special Forces medic and weapons expert. After leaving the service, he enrolled in classes at SF State but his studies were sidetracked when he was struck by a drunk driver and paralyzed. After more than eight months in the hospital, he returned to his goal and became the only surgeon in the world to complete medical school and surgical training as a paraplegic. He is currently Chief of Staff at Maui Memorial Medical Center.

 

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