BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — The U.S. military doctors and nurses at Craig Joint-Theater Hospital are witnesses to a full spectrum of pain and suffering that very few people could attest to. Being the main hospital in Regional Command-East to treat combat casualties, the staff somehow manages to keep their heads up and work like a well-oiled machine saving lives on a daily basis in one of the most dangerous environments on Earth.
Amid that whirlwind of medical wonders, one patient has managed to stand out.
On July 21, a young boy was brought to Forward Operating Base Warrior in south Ghazni province, with severe stomach injuries. He was playing soccer with friends when he was hit by a piece of shrapnel, possibly from a round that had been shot into the ground hundreds of meters away. His father at first did not think the wound was life-threatening, but rushed his son to the FOB as soon as it became clear something was very wrong.
Although U.S. forces were not involved in the accident, the boy was immediately put on a medical evacuation flight to Bagram in a desperate attempt to save his life. He was going to need a miracle.
His name was Najibullah and in the months that followed he would get that miracle, and return the favor.
“His injuries were severely life-threatening on arrival and his very survival was in doubt,” said Air Force Maj. Joe DuBose, CJTH Trauma chief. “The burn injury occurring to his abdomen caused the destruction of the entire thickness of his abdominal wall and a significant portion of his intestines. After multiple bowel resections, the preservation of the viable length of intestine required to support basic oral nutrition was in serious doubt.”
Unable to eat, drink or use his bowels, and in ceaseless pain, it was a fate that would be tough for hardened combat veterans to live through. Najibullah was eight years old when he came to Craig Hospital.
Incredibly, they were still able to put the little boy back together, said Air Force Col. Jim Sperl, CJTH deputy commander. “What these doctors did was amazing. It is truly a testament to the incredible skill and care of our physicians and medical staff that he survived and will soon be able to go home.”
When “Naji,” as he’s affectionately called, arrived at the hospital he spoke no English, never had access to a computer, played a video game, or watched television. The beeping and blinking cluster of medical equipment that surrounded him must have seemed like interplanetary robots, and the strangers in blue scrubs that orbited around him, like space aliens.
Over the next six months and through dozens of operations and very close calls, those strangers would become his caretakers, friends, big brothers and sisters. He in turn would become the star of the medical ward, a bright light for two deployment cycles of elite medical professionals who see the very worst consequences of war day after day.
By the time Naji finally returns to his home in Ghazni, he will have spent more than 25 weeks under the hospital’s care – longer than any patient in it’s history.
“He’s had two dozen operations at least – a dozen in the last month,” said Maj. Chris Wilhelm, the CJTH pediatrician. “And there’s nothing cosmetic about any of them – it’s all just been to keep him alive and get him able to eat well.”
Naji has spent so much time at the hospital that he’s learned how to speak, read and write English within its walls. So well, in fact, that he often acts as interpreter for the doctors and nurses with other children in the ward.
Depending on the day, he’ll give different answers to what he wants to be when he grows up, said Dubose.
“I want to be a teacher,” is his answer today. “A good teacher.”
“Well, you’ve taught me a lot, little brother,” said DuBose, giving Naji an affectionate fist-bump with exploding fingers.
The profound effect Naji’s had on the hospital staff is obvious during a stroll through the long-term care wing of the hospital. He walks carefully, nursing a large patch of skin on one of his legs where a skin graft was taken, and delicately hunched over like he has a constant stomach-ache. He is greeted at every turn either by someone mussing his dark brown hair, high-fives from doctors, or hugs and kisses from the nurses. A wide, boyish grin never leaves his face.
“I feel like I’m home here,” he says.
“He has a lot of friends here,” said DuBose. “We see a lot of children here – any time you’re in this environment it’s a significant component to what we provide, and it’s frequently the most rewarding component of what we do, but Naji’s a rare exception in that we’ve been able to see him all the way through. Most of the time we treat combat casualties and they move very rapidly to the next stage of their care so we lose the opportunity to see the fruits of our labor.”
After all the months of constant attention, Naji’s feelings toward his imminent discharge are mixed.
“I don’t want to leave, because it’s cold in my province and we’re poor,” he said. “I’m going to miss everyone here. I’ve been here six months! [But] when I leave here I’ll be very happy, because I can see my brothers and sisters again.”
It is imperative for Naji to be fully healed before sending him on his way, said Wilhelm.
“We have to get [Afghan patients] into a good state of health before they leave ... because we have to presume they won’t get any outside care,” he said. “A lot of these kids go back to places where there’s no electricity or running water.”
“We’ve been able to see him all the way through some very tough times,” said DuBose. “Hopefully he’ll be able to forget them and move on. He is the future of Afghanistan – and that means it’s a very bright future indeed.”
Judging by the way the staff members’ eyes water when they talk about him, it’s not going to be easy letting little Naji go – but they are immensely proud that he will be walking out full of life and not being carried, lifeless.
“I was very worried for a while, because if Naji died, it was going to be a serious blow to morale for the entire staff,” said Sperl.
Khaled Hosseini, author of ‘The Kite Runner’ wrote, “There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood.” It is a tragic fact that Afghan kids in Naji’s generation don’t know a world without war interrupting their lives.
Naji is exactly as old as the war that has caused so much chaos for so many. Somewhere on the medevac flight between Ghazni and Bagram, he became determined to outlive that life-long foe.
Against incredible odds, and to the constant amazement and joy of his caregivers, he is winning. Once the war is over, and Najibullah is still standing, he and everyone he’s touched will share a beautiful victory.