Morgan Mohalla served as a U.S. Army medic in Afghanistan and was further motivated to attend medical school after interacting with children in the countryside. Photos: Courtesy of the author

I was working as a paramedic when I first learned about compassion in medical practice.

A “frequent flier” with a badly broken foot called repeatedly for help and seemed, more than anything, to be a struggling alcoholic. I was impatient, until I learned the man’s family had abetted his alcohol problem to steal his pain medication for their own use. Instead of my judgment, he needed my advocacy.

The experience fueled my interest in patient care, which began when I was raised in a small town in Northern California by a single mom working as a burn and wound-care nurse. Through her, I saw the possibilities for helping people, especially in medical emergencies.

But higher education seemed out of reach after I graduated from high school. Instead, I became a paramedic. That set me on a path to enlist in the U.S. Army and serve as a senior combat medic in Afghanistan. From there, I earned a university degree I didn’t earlier think was possible; now, at age 33, I hope to attend medical school.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shatters families around the world, we see the need for strong leaders in medicine. The pandemic shows us that contagion can invade nations and overburden hospital systems, even when we have foreknowledge of the potential for outbreaks. The crisis also reminds me of my time as an Army medic, when I cared for fellow soldiers with traumatic wounds while under machine gun, sniper, and mortar fire from Al-Qaeda militants – undermanned, undersupplied, and faced with every obstacle imaginable.

Yet, above all, the COVID-19 crisis reinforces the need for compassion. I fully realized its role in medical care while deployed to Kunar and Kapisa provinces, near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was 2012, and I was with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, based at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs. Our mission was to train and support the local Afghan National Army in battles against Al-Qaeda terrorists.

As a medic, I was sometimes attached to convoys threatened by rocket-propelled grenades. Other times, I accompanied our light infantry unit on foot patrols; we often carried 100 pounds of gear each through mountainous terrain while under attack.

My medical team worked in makeshift aid stations, some with plywood roofing that could be penetrated by plunging enemy fire. Action was constant; gunfire once lasted four days straight. Another time, I worked with only one other medic to triage, treat, and coordinate medivacs for a dozen Afghan National Army personnel and civilians. Our Army mortar team conducted counter-fire operations just outside, and deafening blasts percussed our aid station.

Traumatic brain injuries and hearing damage were common among the dozens of U.S. soldiers and Afghan National Army troops we treated. We also treated soldiers and civilians, including women and little children, with serious gunshot wounds. Some patients required chest tubes, tourniquets, needle chest decompressions, intubations, and other procedures.

During my nine-month deployment, eight American soldiers in my unit returned to country because of their injuries, although no one died. I knew my fellow soldiers would always retain the trauma of their afflictions, yet I felt reasonably sure they would have reliable medical care and professional treatment back home.

The same was not true for local soldiers and civilians from the rural Afghan countryside, where subsistence farming, illiteracy, and violence were common; there was virtually no access to clean water and modern medicine. I could communicate with local patients only in broken Pashto, but my compassion for them grew as I came to understand their difficulties – and our shared humanity.

Multiple times, enemy soldiers were recovered from the battlefield and were brought to my aid station after failing to kill my brothers in arms. I could have easily let my judgment be clouded and let the hemorrhaging take them. But I knew they were human. For me, these injured enemies ceased to be faceless monsters and instead became individuals deserving treatment. They cried in pain and feared death like anyone else. Finding ways to treat these people, or simply comforting them as their lives slipped away, changed my perceptions of those we are taught to think of as “other.”

When I returned to Fort Carson, I had new confidence in my ability to deal with the trials of difficult patient care. I had learned not to fixate on ordeals, but to focus on handling them. I also had military education benefits that would allow me to earn a college degree. So, I settled in Southern Colorado with my wife and later enrolled at CSU Pueblo.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit just as I was preparing to graduate, and it has further motivated me to become a doctor working in crisis situations. I relish the chance to provide health care for those who feel overlooked and abandoned.

And I’ve seen the value of treating people with dignity. Once, while serving in Afghanistan, I cared for a child with a fractured arm. We had limited medical supplies on hand but were able to splint and cast the boy’s arm. He returned a month later to have the cast removed – a child whose arm was healed, in contrast to many local kids who might be disfigured, disabled, or could even die from infection caused by similar injuries. The boy’s father thanked us with a basket of pomegranates. Even more, he provided me with inspiration to deliver medical care to those lacking access.

Morgan Mohalla is a first-generation college student who graduated summa cum laude from CSU Pueblo in May, with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He earned the 2020 Threlkeld Prize for Excellence, the university’s top academic honor.