Vickroy: Army surgeon presents U.S. flag to Little Company of Mary Hospital
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy January 10, 2014 6:48PM
Dr. Nancy Taft (center) presents a U.S. flag to Little Company of Mary Hospital Board President Sister Kathleen McIntyre hospital CEO and president Dennis Reilly at the hospital in Evergreen Park. | Supplied photo
Updated: February 13, 2014 6:33AM
On the very day that Nancy Taft was to ship out for her second tour of duty in Afghanistan, the 51-year-old breast surgeon’s daughter was scheduled to have a bilateral mastectomy.
“It was heartbreaking that I couldn’t be here with her,” said Taft, who returned to the U.S. last month and resumed her staff position at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park. “But it reminded me of all the sacrifices soldiers make to serve.”
In recognition of that selflessness, Taft, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, brought back an American flag that had flown over her base in Kandahar. On behalf of the U.S. Forces Garrison Command, she presented it Thursday to her colleagues at the hospital.
“I brought this flag back so that you and all the people in the community could see all the support you have given me,” she told them. “With all you guys praying for me and with the nuns here having a direct line, I just knew that I was going to come back safe.”
While handing the flag to Dennis Reilly, president and chief execu-tive of the hospital, and Sister Kathleen McIntyre, the hospital board chairwoman, Taft said: “I am very grateful for your prayers. I want you to know that I felt your presence.”
The mantled flag, accompanied by a plaque, “is very personal to me,” she said. “I know you will take good care of it.”
Reilly told Taft that the flag will be displayed prominently on the first floor of the hospital’s new West Pavilion “in recognition of your service and of all the men and women who support our country.”
“Having Dr. Taft back is a wonderful thing for us,” he said. “She was enjoying a very successful practice when she was called up. We’re delighted she made it back home safely.”
McIntyre said it was “wonderful to receive this memento from Afghanistan. It’s a part of her and a reminder that we’re all united again as one.”
From July to December, Taft, who lives in Chicago’s West Loop, was part of the Army’s new Forward Surgical Team, which supports bases that are closing and don’t have medical teams. The surgical unit also is on standby whenever Special Forces are out on missions.
Doctors, nurses and technicians in the team would be helicoptered to remote regions. Once there, they would set up their tents, prepare generators and perform surgery on soldiers, American personnel and civilians who were wounded.
“The first time I saw the tents I was looking around, asking who’s going to put them up,” she said. “I don’t even camp.”
But with enough training, Taft said, they were able to get the mobile surgical units up and running within 90 minutes.
“We’re medical people first, but we are soldiers, too,” she said. “It was amazing that we could do all this in the 115-degree heat while wearing 40 to 50 pounds of body armor.”
To make matters worse, “resources are very limited in the desert. One time we ran out of water.”
Taft said everything about an Afghanistan tour is challenging. Just to get back to Chicago took 10 legs of travel.
She enlisted as a trauma surgeon in the National Guard two days before Sept. 11, 2001. Her first deployment to Afghanistan was in 2009.
“I went in because I needed the financial benefits to help my daughter get through college,” she said. “But once you deploy and you take care of soldiers, you’re never the same. Now, I have a whole different reason for being in.”
Though medical teams rotate in and stay for about six months, Taft said, combat soldiers stay longer.
“My unit is still there,” she said. “Until they make it home, my heart is with them.”
As rough as the tour was for a doctor accustomed to operating in Little Company’s state-of-the-art facilities, it was worrying about the home front that Taft found most taxing.
Her daughter did well through the surgery, but Taft still wishes she could have been there to comfort her.
“It was Stage 1, but it was her second time having it,” she said.
Taft’s husband, Ted Wallhaus, did his best to keep his wife informed of news at home.
“I emailed her every day, telling her how much I loved her,” Wallhaus said. “And then because I knew she longed for normalcy, I would tell her about things going on back here.”
He also counted down the days to her return, attaching amusing tidbits to each day’s number.
“On the 45th day, he told me who the 45th president was and how the number 45 appeared in this movie or that one,” Taft said.
There were times, though, when the unit was out of range for a few days or when Taft would have to suddenly stop Skyping because the base was being shelled.
“I did my best to keep calm through it all, reading on my Kindle whenever I could,” she said. “But there were times I was scared. You really learn to trust that everything is OK until it isn’t.”
Overall, Taft told her colleagues, “it was a wonderful experience interacting with the Afghan people and soldiers from other countries. I wouldn’t want to put anyone in harm’s way, but I wish every single one of you could be there and experience this with me.”
Now that she’s back and has had time to reflect, Taft said she was a “better surgeon because of this. The experience makes you more efficient and helps you think on your feet better. And I’m a better person. I appreciate the small things. Ice in my drink makes me happy.”
Taft said she wanted to bring the flag back to Evergreen Park because “this community is phenomenal. It always supports this hospital.”