Why you should care
Because seeing is believing.
I was watching the migrant caravans on the news from California, and I was seeing kids getting separated from parents and dreamers getting tossed out of the country. Some of them were people I knew and loved.
I wanted to see this part of world history firsthand because I have a hard time believing without seeing. Also, if something interests me, especially if itʼs dangerous, Iʼll try to go see it for myself. But mostly I wanted to help be part of some positive energy for people who could use a friendly face.
I went down through Mexico in my truck looking for a way to be of service to the poor, to connect with folks on a human level. It didnʼt take long for me to find myself up to my elbows in it.
Specifically: a screaming baby boy bleeding from a horrific dog bite to his face and a ragged hole where his nose used to be.
He was screaming and I was gritting my teeth and trying to keep all of us super cool.
There were three Red Cross medics looking at me to start stitching the boy’s face while his crying mother mumbled prayers to Jesus in the corner. All eyes were on me.
The surgical kit was laid out in front of me and I had my sterile gloves on. All I had to do was not fuck up this kid’s face forever. All I had to do was not miss. All I had to do was try to drown out the boy’s screams and keep my hands from shaking and betraying me.
See, once upon a time, I was a Navy corpsman. I worked for Marine Corps troopers doing heavy shit in heavy places. I was the guy youʼd see running in the battle scenes of movies when the injured hollered, “Medic!”
I loved my job. It took me all over the world and I made friends with some of the roughest, nicest, strongest warriors that America produced for 16 years, where I bounced from one war zone to the next.
They taught me how to shoot straight, move fast and communicate clearly. They taught me how to parachute from planes and keep folks from dying. It was stressful sometimes, but it was a lovely Jedi path of self-discovery and service.
“A man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war,” said Anthony Swofford, American writer and former U.S. Marine. “And afterward he turns the rifle in, and he believes heʼs finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands, love a woman, build a house, change his sonʼs diaper; his hands remember the rifle.”
Damned right. I turned in my rifle when I left the military. But my hands never forgot the rifle; like my hands never forget how to be a medic. And I never turned in my medic bag because I never intended to stop helping.
So I drove out of Los Angeles going south until I hit the Guatemalan border in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. I was sitting with some new friends in the jungle, and we were watching their kids play with one of the local dogs. We were talking about life in the United States, the migrants on the roads, the migrants in the camps. We packed a bowl with some relatively decent Mexican herb.
Suddenly I heard the snarls of a dog attacking a little kid in the camp and the kid began screaming in the dark of the forest. We ran into the jungle and found him hollering for his mother, his nose separated at the nostril. It was not good. It was completely torn right through to the septum.
I shined a light in his nose to examine the damage and saw right into his nares and sinus cavity. It was proper fucked.
We were in the heart of Mayan country, deep in the forest and a stone’s throw from ancient ruins with monkeys in the trees. The mom was a street musician who had been playing her drums for tourists. She said she had no money for a hospital and asked me if I was really a medic. Then she asked if I could fix her son.
It had been a while since I sutured anybody, and I certainly hadnʼt done any kids’ faces or brought a nose back together, but I could hear my mama’s voice in my head: “Take your time, straight stitches … just donʼt miss, Son.”
So we loaded up and headed to the Red Cross station not far up the road. I had to off-road the truck over curbs and against traffic.
We showed up and the medics explained that they didnʼt normally use the space as a clinic and that they didnʼt normally sew dog bites. But after removing the bandage Iʼd placed on the boy’s nose and after they saw how badly his face was shredded, they understood this wasnʼt a normal case.
Their eyes got wide and they immediately took to the task like real medics do when people are proper fucked. They knew the damage was severe and they didnʼt come into the Red Cross to turn bleeding kids away at 3 am.
They jumped into action and broke out the rubbing alcohol, scrubbed the kitchen table, put their midnight meal into the fridge and turned their kitchen into an impromptu surgical suite.
I remember thinking that I wasnʼt completely sure I could do this, and I was also very sure it was going to be a hard surgery. I would have to pierce his nostril a few times to sew it closed, and manipulate the needle within his nostril with my forceps without sticking the inner nares and then I would have to pierce it again from the inside. It would be very tricky and dexterous work.
I also had to do this quickly without too much bleeding, as the blood flowing into the back of his throat would choke him. If he coughed, his head would shake and cause me to miss with my needles.
For his pain, I had injectable lidocaine, and a surgical instrument set for the stitching. I was thankful that my comrade Anael had the foresight to buy me a brand new surgical kit as a gift before I left for Mexico.
I sat up straight in the Red Cross kitchen, on a bench as hard and as uncomfortable as the one my mother sat me on when she taught me to sew. Three Mexican Red Cross medics held the boy down as I injected his nose with lidocaine. He was screaming and I was gritting my teeth and trying to keep all of us super cool.
In my head, I was fighting my own panic, which was made worse by the dread of hurting a child. If these medics or the mom saw me lose my calm, they would lose their calm. In my head, it was a battle to control my own emotions. I had come to Mexico looking for a way to help. The universe gave me one.
So I managed my panic, got my shit together and moved the razor-sharp cutting needles inside his nostrils. The torn flesh came together like some Hollywood plastic surgeon was working on it. Like magic, after about an hour of stitching and tying surgical knots, his nose was a nose again.
He looked good and I let him sit up front in the truck and honk the horn all the way back to his mom’s campsite, where she called me brother and I called her hermana.
I guess the thing Iʼm learning most on the road south of the border is that there’s no real separation between them and us, or you and me. Except for a wall of steel and a bigger wall of fear. But that wall breaks down if youʼre willing to open your eyes and your heart … if you’re willing to ditch fear. I feel the obviousness of the wisdom in the golden rule here amongst folks who are struggling and need help. There’s no difference between us thatʼs more important than our sameness.
I cleaned up my tools after the surgery and I felt my face get wet as I wept tears of gratitude and happiness: This woman loved her son with the same love my late mother had loved me.
The Indian sage Ramana Maharshi was famously asked: “How should we treat others?”
His answer was so simple and so true: “There are no others.”