June 2006 — Fallujah, Iraq
It was a routine patrol—if there was such a thing as a routine patrol in Fallujah, Iraq.
Chris Walsh, a Navy corpsman assigned to a U.S. Marines weapons company, was riding in a Humvee with three Marines when a hidden bomb exploded in the road just in front of them.
Before the dust could settle, the Marines and Walsh were out of the vehicle looking for the insurgents who had planted the remote-controlled device.
During the search, Walsh and the Marines came to a doorway as a woman emerged, holding an infant and saying, “Baby sick.”
Walsh put his weapon down to examine the baby.
Walsh had seen bad things—both as an EMT back home in St. Louis and at war. But he had never seen anything like this.
The child, just a few months old, looked as though her insides had been turned inside out.
Her name was Mariam.
And in a moment, the mission shifted. Instead of looking for the bad guys who had tried to kill him and his crew, Walsh pulled out a digital camera and took pictures of Mariam to show the doctors back at base camp.
As soon as Captain Sean Donovan, the doctor back at base camp saw them, he knew that Mariam had a rare condition—bladder exstrophy—in which the bladder develops outside the body.
Donovan said she wouldn’t live long without surgery of a kind she couldn’t get in Iraq.
“Then, we’ve got to get her out of here, sir.” – Christopher Walsh
Saving Baby Mariam became his mission.
Walsh enlisted the assistance of his platoon.
Donovan began using his computer, trying to find the appropriate medical care and a shortcut through the military bureaucracy, to get Mariam out.
For months, under the cover of darkness, wearing night-vision goggles, Walsh and a dozen Marines made their way to the shanty where Mariam lived. They parked their Humvees a mile away and walked a different, circuitous route each time.
Their lives depended on it.
They tended to Mariam as best they could, trying to ward off an infection that could kill her.
Her life depended on it.
Concurrent with the night-time lifesaving missions, they made great strides in getting Mariam the long-term care she desperately needed in the United States.
They secured donations to cover the costs of travel and assistance. In addition, they found Dr. Rafael V. Pieretti, a Venezuelan surgeon at Massachusets General Hospital who is one of the few doctors in the United States who specialize in the condition.
Pieretti and the hospital offered their services free.
It seemed everything was coming together.
But there, saving Mariam stalled.
Some 5,000 Iraqi civilians were seeking to leave the country for medical care, and Mariam would have to wait her turn.
On Labor Day, Sept. 4, Walsh and his team were on another patrol in another section of Fallujah, about a mile from Mariam’s house.
This time, the blast didn’t happen in front of Walsh’s Humvee; the bomb exploded directly under the vehicle.
My friend—a hero—died that day, but his mission did not.
His compatriots decided to honor the fallen by saving the baby.
E-mails from Fallujah shot all around the United States, detailing the risks that Walsh and the Marines had taken, the effort expended, and the blood spilled.
And as quickly as the mission to save Mariam had stalled, the red tape loosened, and in early October, Mariam was flown to Boston.
The surgery was successful, and Mariam is doing well.
Chris is a hero and a friend.
I had the honor of working with Chris as a paramedic for the City of Saint Louis. His dedication to serving others was evident then too.
I am proud to call him a friend.
His leadership, bravery, tenacity, and unwavering desire to help others serve as a guiding light for us all.
I miss you often my friend.