Patient care so demanding threats to own safety become secondary
KINGSTON, R.I., — January 29, 2007 — Lisa Geary woke up to a mortar attack near a U.S. military hospital in Balad, Iraq on Christmas morning 2005.
Leigh Eddy called the hospital “Mortaritaville” because of the attacks.
They were deployed separately to Iraq as members of the Rhode Island Air National Guard, but they shared the common threat of attack while treating patients with injuries most people could never fathom. Geary served from November 2005 to January 2006 and Eddy served from May 2006 to August 2006.
Both longtime nurses at The Miriam Hospital and graduates of the University of Rhode Island, they were strangers until they met as members of the Air National Guard’s 143rd Medical Group at Quonset. In Iraq they served with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Medical Group, which operates the Air Force Theater Hospital, the equivalent of a Level 1 trauma center, and sees more than 650 patients per month.
Lt. Eddy, a resident of Riverside, earned her master’s degree as a nurse practitioner from URI in December, and Wakefield resident Geary is in the first year of the program. Eddy kept up with her studies while in Iraq, and Geary was accepted into the nurse practitioner program while stationed in Iraq. She began classes three days after returning home. They both earned bachelors’ degrees from URI, Geary in physical and health education and Eddy in nursing. Their husbands also serve in the National Guard, and have served in Iraq.
Eddy served full time with the Marines for eight years as a small arms repair specialist. She left the Marines as a sergeant in November 1992 to pursue her nursing career. Even she acknowledges joining the Marines was a different path for someone who thought about nursing as a girl. “I always thought I wanted to go to nursing school, but I didn’t have the temperament when I was 19,” said the mother of Jessica, her 17-year-old daughter.
In Iraq, she worked with all the injured, including victims of head injuries from bomb blasts. “I saw many more women and children with injuries than I expected,” Eddy said. “I expected to treat coalition forces, but we never turned anyone away.
“It’s a sad testament of what terrorism is to see that they kill women and children,” Eddy said.
“At The Miriam Hospital, I deal with people facing co-morbidity and chronic illness, but in Iraq I took care of healthy people with awful, disfiguring injuries. The worst of it was the little kids because they are so innocent.”
When insurgents lobbed mortars from pickup trucks toward the base, Eddy said she was normally so busy that she didn’t think about it. “The time you worry about it is when you are in the Porta Potty.”
In Iraq, Major Geary was part of the Critical Care Air Transport Team, which consisted of a critical care nurse, a respiratory therapist and a critical care doctor. The team’s job was to keep critically injured military personnel alive on the six-hour flight from Iraq to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany. “It was a flying intensive care unit,” Geary said. “All our patients were on breathing apparatus.
“It changed me,” said Geary who has had two stints as a critical care flight nurse, one based in Germany and the other in Iraq. This is by far the most important thing I have done in my life, and I was so humbled to be serving our war injured.”
A former resident of Pawtucket and graduate of Shea High School, she has been in the Air Guard for 16 years, three years as a major.
“Our team was developed to transport the most critical patients out of the theater of operation, which sometimes means taking them post-op from the operating room to the aircraft,” Geary said. “Everything we need, we bring with us, which means 500 pounds of equipment. Our job is to make sure the patient stays alive on the six-hour flight. Each shift was 24 hours long because of the preparation time, the flight time and the breakdown time when we retuned.”
In addition to the stress of caring for patients, Geary said “there is always the chance of a rocket attack.
“The responsibilities of combat nurses and their dedication to their patients are so great that they often have to be ordered to get down during an attack,” Geary said. “They are not even conscious of their own need for safety.”
When not deployed overseas, Geary is the assistant nurse manager of the Air Guard clinic at Quonset.
Eddy and Geary had high praise for The Miriam Hospital and the University for their flexibility and for the solid foundations they provided for such intense nursing work. They also continue to rely on each other.
“I am lucky to have her as a friend,” said Geary. “Leigh works for me in the Guard, but someday, I’ll probably be working for her in a hospital. Leigh is a very dedicated, very good person.”
“I met Lisa at the Guard and found out that she worked in the ICU at Miriam,” said Eddy. “She was a great mentor at the base, and we just really had a lot in common and became good friends. Lisa and I talk all the time now.”
“Nursing is a tough racket,” Geary said. “It has to be a calling because you won’t succeed if it isn’t. It requires a lot of sacrifice.”
But even Geary has a new perspective on sacrifice. “You know how no one wants to work on Christmas? A year ago, I woke up to a mortar attack. This year I worked Christmas Holiday at The Miriam, and I was glad to. The Iraq experience changed me, and I learned some things in life are not worth worrying about.”
CLOSE FRIENDS: Major Lisa Geary, left, and Lt. Leigh Eddy of the Rhode Island Air National Guard, take time out for a photo at the Guard’s 143rd Medical Group Clinic at Quonset. The two longtime nurses at The Miriam Hospital and University of Rhode Island graduates became close friends after meeting in the Air Guard. They were stationed in Iraq together. Photo courtesy of Lisa Geary.