Back from the Conflict Zone

March 13, 2014

The kid was no more than 7, a scruffy little dark-eyed boy who was followed everywhere by his younger brother. For days, they’d set up just outside the Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, trying to make enough money selling drink boxes to survive. Like most boys his age, he couldn’t keep still, moving around and calling out to passersby.

And then, he wasn't there. One step off the hard pack in front of the camp and the explosion from a land mine blew the child in the air. He landed in one spot, his legs in another. Almost immediately, he was surrounded by soldiers and rushed to the Canadian Forces–run military hospital.

And that’s when he met Lieutenant Commander John Macdonald, MD, who last year retired from the Canadian Forces after serving 20 years and is now an anesthesiologist and critical care specialist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

“We resuscitated him and cleaned up his stumps,” recalled Dr. Macdonald. “The next day, we asked him what he remembered. He said he looked over and could see his sneakers and that his legs weren’t attached anymore. He said, ‘I knew my life was changing.’”

In some ways, that event and others also changed Dr. Macdonald, who grew up in Prince Edward Island and studied medicine at the University of Western Ontario, where he enlisted. After stints at Canadian Forces Base Trenton and the Joint Task Force 2 Dwyer Hill Training Centre, he participated in peacekeeping missions to the Golan Heights, Bosnia and Africa, in addition to three rotations to Afghanistan.

“It was amazing the first time I went, in 2006, into an area of conflict. I was doing and seeing incredible things. At the end of the day, you can high-five for literally saving people’s lives. The medicine is neat and there’s a crazy intensity of high-pressure situations.”

Yet, the lifestyle itself—the dirt and dust, the chaos and anxiety of living and working in close quarters with the same people, was trying. Situated next to a busy, noisy runway, the hospital—a converted sea container and tent—was never rid of dirt. “We would come in and dust would be embedded in everything.” What’s more, the camp was rocketed often.

“One day, I was walking to the hospital from across the camp,” he recalled. “There was a big explosion. A van of Afghan workers was coming in the gate, and there were explosives strapped to it, but they lost their nerve and set it off early. As I’m walking, there was another explosion, this time a pilot was taking off and didn’t make it, so he ejected and the plane crashed. In all this chaos, we’re awaiting casualties. I looked it up and Yahoo! had already reported there were 16 casualties; we were getting updates from the Internet as it happened.”

“The upside is that you’re doing good work, saving lives and making a difference, like with that little boy. The rest of his life will be a challenge, but we still saved him.”

Although those days are behind him—“now I drive to work, have a coffee and listen to the CBC”—the father of four said there are still parallels between life in Afghanistan and Ottawa.

“Like in Afghanistan, this is a small hospital with a small staff doing fantastic things. Everyone knows you. Because we’re in the OR, there’s a lot of acuity, which I love, and you can get good results. I like acute care medicine and the rush of things. Like there, I have the professional expression, ‘the work, the challenge and camaraderie.’ The big difference is that we’re not under threat here,” he observed.

As an anesthesiologist and critical care specialist, Dr. Macdonald spends much of his time in the Heart Institute’s Cardiac Surgery Intensive Care Unit, where he works with a dedicated team that includes physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, physiotherapists and others to manage the sometimes complex recoveries of surgical and other patients.

“I always said that if I could make a difference in someone’s life and then go home at the end of the day, that would be the perfect job,” he added. “And that’s what I have.”

Coming Soon
  • Dr. Macdonald will be featured on the Heart Institute Telethon airing on March 23, 2014, on CTV Ottawa.
  • Read more about critical care and the Cardiac Surgery Intensive Care Unit in the next issue of The Beat.