(Read Part 7 HERE)

It was 2:30 in the morning and I was wide awake.  My hammock swung gently, tied to the bamboo posts in Saw Rai’s house.  My bags were packed up, ready to leave at a moment’s notice.  The doctor, who usually slept in the hammock next to mine, had been gone all night.  His bags were neatly stacked in the corner.

The muffled sounds of hushed voices past my hut from time to time.  The field hospital nearby was busy this morning.  A pregnant woman had come in, completely dilated, but the kid wasn’t coming out.  He was stuck–a death sentence for both the mother and child.  This is not particularly uncommon, as the chances of the mother dying in childbirth is about fifty times higher than in the US.  Not an exaggeration.

They told us to go to sleep and that if she didn’t deliver by the early morning, we would have to carry her out to the border, where we would find a large hospital with some advanced equipment.  That’s a serious hike with a backpack, let alone carrying a pregnant woman all the way out.

I was supposed to get some sleep, and I fell unconscious for a couple hours, but I had a feeling we were going to be hiking through the morning.

“Luke, we need to go.” A voice broke the silence, like a quiet starter pistol releasing me from the stables.  I hopped out of the hammock, quickly unhooked it and stuffed it in my bag.  I  grabbed the doctor’s bags and carried my own down the hill and to the field hospital.

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Within twenty minutes, we were carrying the woman in labor by means of a “jungle ambulance.”  It was a bamboo pole with a makeshift hammock strung up on either end.  The carriers would take turns on either end of the bamboo pole, carrying her up the mountains as the bamboo pole uncomfortably dug into our shoulders.

Getting ready to move out

I took turns carrying her several times, but with my film equipment and large bag, it made sense that the guys carrying nothing took more of the burden.  Still, I felt like I could have done more, and watched anxiously every time we stopped so the doctor could check the poor woman.

We reached a river, where a rickety bamboo raft would take us across.  The chances of going overboard were high–not the end of the world for us, but the barely conscious pregnant woman was snugly tied into her jungle ambulance, and there was no doubt that she would have drowned in that turbulent water.

The doctor turned to me, rotating his headlight down and out of my eyes.

“Luke, you got a knife on you, right?”

“Yeah.”

“She goes overboard, go after her and cut her loose.  We’ll have to swim her to shore and figure it out from there.”

“You got it.”

The water in the raft was over my ankles.  The poorly constructed vessel teetered left and right with the slightest shift in weight.  Our headlights danced on the surface of the river as we carefully meandered our way to the far shore.  The lead man held onto a rope that was anchored onto both sides; I kept a watchful eye on the woman, ready to drop everything and dive in after her.

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Somehow we made it to the other side.  We picked her up and kept going.

It wasn’t long before we gave up on the baby.  At this point, in the middle of the colossal jungle, we didn’t have the time or resources to save everyone; the doctor was just doing his best to keep the Karen woman alive.

Jungle ambulance: used for patients and heavy equipment

We kept on, through the early morning and into the day’s relentless sun.

For security reasons, I can’t go into all the steps we had to take to get her out across the border, but suffice to say we did it in a day, and we did the best we could.

We handed her off to the bigger hospital and didn’t see her again.  She was alive, and that was something.  We hoped she could stay that way.

Five of us waited quietly in the last bamboo hut.  There were several new security concerns and we needed to stay out of sight.  There had been no word regarding the woman, and there was nothing to do but wait.

Finally, the doctor ducked his head in.  “She delivered.  I don’t know how, but both mom and baby are okay.”

Sighs of relief replaced the exhausted faces around the room.  No one quite knew what to say.  Turns out, the kid just had a remarkably wide head and was obstructing his own exit from the womb.  After seeing a picture, we started to call him wedge-head.  Had she not been exfilled, they would have likely both died.  Now they were happy, healthy mother and son.  It felt good to be a small cog in the machine that got her out.  But these guys do stuff like that every day, I was little more than a tourist.

A week later I was back in Tampa, Florida applying for the GI Bill so I could attend the University of South Florida.  I didn’t spend much time in Burma, but I often think back to those times and the outstanding people I met there.  There have been two times in my life where I felt I could look around and be impressed with everyone surrounding me: my service in 3rd Ranger Battalion, and my trip to Karen state, Burma. 

He certainly earned his nickname