In 2001 when I was 10 years old, I wrote in my fifth-grade yearbook that I wanted to be a military nurse. I was inspired by Nana, a nurse during World War II. I was motivated, too, by the still fresh, anguished memories of 9/11. My dad always told me to pick my path and follow it with my heart.
So, I did.
Twenty years later, I was working as an Air Force flight nurse at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, surrounded by the chaos and danger, confusion and desperation washing over the country in the waning days of the war. My job at the on-site hospital was to support and coordinate medical evacuations.
Kabul was unlike any other experience in my life; most days I struggle to find the words to describe it. Each day took my breath away. I saw the best of humanity and the worst. I saw Americans and allies come together to safely evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans to what we all hoped were new lives with endless possibilities. I shed tears with families reuniting after being separated trying to make it to an airport gate, and I shed tears with my deployed family watching fellow service members take their last breath.
Most of all, every time I recount my experience, I think of “Joy,” the Afghan infant who unexpectedly ended up in my arms on Aug. 26, 2021, and who likely saved my life.
That day started with a security breach at one of the airport gates. With only two hours sleep I had to report to the hospital, where everyone had to go for “accountability.” We were not allowed to return to our quarters until the “all-clear” was declared. With time to kill I went to the busy emergency room to help out.
Around 5:15 pm one of the doctors asked if I could go to the Abbey Gate, the main civilian entrance to the airport, to help with a medical situation. Marines stationed at the gate typically would handle medical emergencies and then bring the patients to the hospital. This time, however, they needed help.
Without hesitating, I threw on my gear and headed out. I got as far as the ER doors. Blocking me were three Marines carrying a baby girl no more than 2 months old. She was passed over the gate, they said, in what we assumed was a desperate act for a better life. She had no papers and no name.
I cradled her in my arms and took her to the ER for a check-up before taking her to the part of the hospital caring for children. We decided later to call her Joy. While the doctors were examining her, she fell asleep in my arms, the picture of hope, innocence and peace. I kept looking at baby Joy and thinking of all the possibilities for her future. In all the chaos around me, I found peace holding Joy.
It did not last.
At 5:45pm, we were told there had been a suicide bombing at Abbey Gate, the same gate I was headed to before the Marines appeared with Joy. The bomb was huge and devastating. It killed 13 U.S. service members and 160 civilians.
I kept thinking about how Joy saved me. Her arrival kept me at the hospital and away from the explosion. I’m convinced she saved me so I could save as many people as I could that night.
Our first patient arrived at 5:52 pm, only 30 minutes after I intended to go to the gate myself. Many more would soon follow. While I’m an experienced nurse who has responded to a lot of injuries and emergencies, this was different. My heart was racing and the world spun in slow motion as I helped triage the steady stream of patients coming into the ER.
All I could think was I had to help stabilize these desperately wounded people and move them to higher care. We encountered patients with gunshot wounds, head injuries, injuries caused by debris, broken bones and cuts. One Afghan woman arrived in labor. My team knew our roles but we were forced to learn new ones on the spot. We coordinated with agencies to get aeromedical evacuation and critical care air transportation teams into the airport as quickly as possible. The tricky part of coordinating the missions was to get the flight crews ready to pick up patients quickly while giving the trauma teams enough time to stabilize the patients.
With the cascading number of injuries, and their grim severity, it was easy to get overwhelmed, even discouraged. Yet, amid it all, there were bursts of humanity along with “visits” from my Nana that sustained me.
At one point I was explaining to an Afghan mother through a translator how we were treating her severely wounded son. As soon as the translator got the last word out, the mother leapt into my arms with a huge hug. She kissed my cheek. “Your angels have blessed you to save us. I will walk with you in my heart and spread your kindness to the world,” she said. It gives me chills to this day. My Nana always told me I became a nurse to spread kindness when people needed it the most.
That night medics and doctors from around the world turned a heinous event into something of a miracle. Across three aeromedical evacuation missions, we moved 38 patients to higher care in less than 15 hours. Every patient involved in the mass causality event was moved or discharged, completely emptying the hospital for the next attack. When it was over, it was recognized as the largest and fastest medical evacuation in modern history.
I am in awe of the way everyone worked together and improvised to save lives, and I am a different person today because of it.
I think of Joy every day and hope her new family is giving her all the love she deserves. I also think of her family and the decision they made that day, knowing what they were losing and what she was gaining.
My dad (an Army veteran with countless tours to Afghanistan) and I share a different bond now — something we don’t talk about but we both understand. My mom hugs me a little tighter every time I see her, and each time she says “goodbye” I know it’s her way of counting our blessings. I am reminded, as well that I have the greatest guardian angel looking out for me and keeping me safe.
Capt. Kayleigh Migaleddi is an Air Force flight nurse stationed at Travis Air Force Base who was deployed to Kabul during the tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. This article is part of a collection of essays by Air Force personnel to commemorate the service’s 75th anniversary on Sept. 18, 2022.
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