He had only one eye. And he was my real big crush as a 19 year-old student nurse in a military hospital in the Philippines.
It was our group’s clinical orientation at the Plastic Surgery ward. The patients in that unit usually stayed longer than those in the acute surgical units as they awaited reconstructive surgeries and rehabilitation treatments.
The horrors of war with the insurgents in Southern Philippines rendered the soldiers with varying degrees of disfigurements, limbs lost and faces marked with the weapons of war. They had barely survived their physical injuries but their emotional scars ran deeper. Most of the soldiers were mostly the young recruits who had been ill-prepared in battle warfare. Their lives were forever changed.
The clinical instructor warned us that the patients were eagerly anticipating the new batch of student nurses that were assigned to the unit, each one of them ready to move on to their new crushes. In other words, the new group of nurses was “fresh meat” who brought much-needed excitement and distraction to the soldiers from their otherwise boring and mundane existence.
Our tasks included dressing changes and wound and stump care. Our most important mission: to provide cheer and hope in a unit full of men depressed by inactivity and uncertainty. The student nurses were the “happy pills”. We were the bright points during the patients’ stay in the hospital.
Mr. Bernabe cautioned us against being too friendly with the patients and that we should accept their fawning praises with a grain of salt. Any nurse caught accepting the advances of the soldiers would be suspended. And so, on our first day at the unit, we armed ourselves with our professional smiles and our firm but polite “Sorry, I can’t go out with you. I have a boyfriend already.”
My first assignment in the Treatment Room started auspiciously as the grouchy regular nurse whined about the endless tasks that she had to do. Mr. Bernabe placated Lt. Morales by assuring her that “Miss Cerrudo will take over the dressings today. So don’t worry. I will be supervising her.”
Not surprisingly, my first three patients all tried to pepper me with personal questions about my “boyfriend”. Just as I was ready to call for the next patient, I heard someone ask my instructor who was at the door to get the regular nurse instead. He was a little sullen and did not want a student nurse tending to his eye. I felt my ears getting red as he questioned my instructor about my skills. Bless his heart, Mr. Bernabe vouched for my academic knowledge and technical prowess.
At that moment, our instructor was summoned by another nurse to another treatment area. Despite my earlier resolve, I was fuming mad and intended to give the rude patient a piece of my mind about his pissy attitude. I was tired, and did not appreciate how ungrateful that yet-unknown patient was.
I remember feeling a jolt of awareness when the patient came into the treatment room. He appeared awkward and uncomfortable. As I stood there in silence, he softly muttered, “I’m sorry.”
Psychology 101 made me realize that his gruffness was because of his sense of vulnerability. It must have been difficult for the man to be looked at, not with interest but with something akin to pity. Suddenly, I felt ashamed for not understanding so I nodded my acceptance of his apology and gave him a welcoming smile.
“Sammy” was a soldier whose left eye was enucleated from an injury in the battlefield in Cotabato. My assignment was to change the dressings on his empty left eye socket.
As we locked eyes, a shy smile broke into his dark, handsome face. His beautiful brown right eye was fringed with the longest lashes I’ve seen on a man. His strong jaw, aquiline nose and full lips combined to give him a rakish but a totally masculine look.
He sat dutifully on the chair as I stood over him and gingerly unwrapped the dressing over his left eye. A look of pain and embarrassment crossed Sammy’s face as he sat exposed with his hollow left eye socket.
As I ministered to him, he was observing me closely, searching my face for any sign of revulsion. But all I felt was a deep respect for the soldier and the man. Like all the other soldiers in the unit, Sammy had sacrificed his future in service of country.
A warm feeling suffused me as I watched him watching me. My cheeks felt warm and my heart palpitated. I was perplexed that I felt both relief and sadness when I finished the job. Sammy thanked me quietly. We both smiled at each other.
As we settled in the routine of the unit, our instructor allowed the nurses to engage the patients in free-wheeling but good-natured group discussions. The unit seemed more alive. Because the patients were forewarned that they will lose privileges if they disrespect the nurses, they were all in their best behavior.
My interactions with Sammy were limited to the dressing changes and the vital signs-taking. We were aware of each other. It was an exhilarating feeling for a 19-year old girl. Distracted by his proximity, I almost shot the mercury from the sphygomanometer.
He always managed to stay back in line for the daily dressing changes. As my last patient, he was able to linger a few more minutes in the treatment room and he began to open up about his wait for his prosthetic eye. As with all the other soldiers, he was not bitter about his injuries, and he was still committed to serve in the military. Sammy confided his dream of finishing his engineering studies. He also made sure that I was looking at his good side during our conversations.
In one of the treatment sessions, Sammy caught me humming the song “Skyline Pigeon” by Elton John. We shared a laugh as he corrected me when I mistakenly called it “Turn Me Loose”. It was a sweet moment. It was also the first time that I felt sad that our time together would soon end.
On the last day of our month-long clinical rotation, the patients gave us a surprise party. For a month, we distracted them from their mundane worries, made them laugh, and gave them hope. We were appreciated for the excitement we brought to the unit.
Sporting a black patch over his left eye, just like a handsome pirate, Sammy brought out his guitar and sang “our song”.
Turn me loose from your hands
Let me fly to distant lands
Over green fields, trees and mountains
Flowers and forest fountains
Home along the lanes of the skyway
The song is about a man’s yearning for his freedom; of flying towards his dreams. But I was the one flying away. As a young nurse, I was on the verge of a future in the United States. I wanted more , not only for myself, but also for my family.Somehow, Sammy understood.
Sammy’s voice soared earnestly. “Skyline Pigeon” is not a love song but it felt like one to me. I felt a lump in my throat. We’ve never talked about our feelings , but the song told me that he was letting me go. Then he winked at me.
Saying goodbye was difficult. Maybe his friends maneuvered it, but we found ourselves alone at the treatment room. He confessed that he was falling for me, but that he did not want to hold me back. I had told him before that I was planning to go to the States. It was not a right time for any romance.
November 11, 2010
That was more than 25 years ago. And today is Veterans’ Day. Maybe that’s why I am remembering him now, the soldier who sang an Elton John song to me.
Coincidence or not, actor Sam Milby appeared on my TV screen. The aquiline nose, the strong jaw, the full lips, and the incredibly beautiful eyes fascinated me.
The resemblance to Sammy was so uncanny. I hurriedly paused the videotape I was watching. Crouching in front of the TV, I put my hand over Sam’s left eye, imagined the soldier Sammy with his eye patch and it felt that I was transported back in time to that military hospital.
I wonder where he is now, Sammy, and his Skyline Pigeon.