Helen Hui-Chou has lived through her share of 36-hour shifts and all-nighters at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. But when the one-time Navy nurse gains the right to be called "doctor" during her graduation at the 1st Mariner Arena tomorrow, she'll have weathered more than just a grueling four years.
Four and a half years ago, Hui-Chou was dressing the wounds of captured al-Qaida operatives, wondering why she had to treat men who'd helped plan the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and, quite possibly, helped plot the Sept. 11 attacks. Had her patients slipped their shackles, they might well have strangled her with her own stethoscope.
Just as stressful, if she couldn't get off the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay soon enough, her dream of a career as a doctor was in danger of vanishing.
Tomorrow, Hui-Chou, 31, hopes those days will seem a lifetime ago. One of a growing number of University of Maryland students who take a nontraditional path to medical school, she'll graduate alongside 149 classmates. "I haven't come to terms with it yet," she says. "It almost seems surreal."
Hui-Chou can't say why she always wanted to be a doctor. There was no family precedent. Her uncle and grandfather had been in the Taiwanese military; her father was an engineer. But as a kindergartner, it fascinated her to watch as a pediatrician treated her kid sister, Emily, and at 16, she became one of the youngest emergency medical technicians in York, Pa., her adopted hometown.
She loved the hands-on education. In fact, she was so impressed with the nurses she knew that Hui-Chou decided a few years in that profession might well benefit a future medical-school student. She entered the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in 1993.
On graduating, she joined the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. "The military seemed like a great place to grow, blossom and gain experience," she says.
It also brought her face-to-face with history.
Her first posting, at Bethesda Naval Hospital, steeped Hui-Chou (pronounced "hoy chow") in the basics of day-to-day nursing care, from post-op physical therapy to the checking of wounds. Many of her patients - veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam - had stirring war stories, and she listened when she could. The one who changed her was a tale all his own.
The 18-year-old arrived from Germany, fresh from major surgery. On Oct. 12, 2000, he'd been in line for breakfast on the USS Cole when the blast went off, killing 17 of his friends. He'd been flown from Yemen to Germany, where surgeons removed chunks of stove and kitchenware from his abdominal cavity and sent him to Bethesda.
It was Hui-Chou's first week on the intensive-care ward, and the case was an education. On his second day, the patient took a sudden turn for the worse. His blood pressure sank; his fever rose. Surgeons operated and found a small piece of onion beneath his liver. They removed it and put him on antibiotics.
"He got better right away," she says. "I thought, `Wow-one operation, some antibiotics, and he's fine?'" She realized she loved the high-impact nature of intensive care, where what the caregivers did made a dramatic difference.
The incident also gave her a first up-close look at world events which, in a sort of nurse's version of Forrest Gump, seemed to keep crisscrossing her path.
The following year changed history - and her approach to medicine.
Hui-Chou was managing an intensive care unit at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, when the planes hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. She watched in horror on the patients' televisions in her ward. That night, she packed for search and rescue operations in New York.
But the mission was canceled. "There weren't enough survivors," she says.
The war on terror, though, tracked her as closely as a doctor making rounds. As Operation Enduring Freedom began, she applied for duty in Afghanistan, but only male nurses were assigned there. Instead, in January 2002, she was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the first prisoners from the Afghan battlefields were arriving. Along with 177 other nurses and doctors, she helped set up the makeshift hospital in which they would treat the wounded captives.
For Hui-Chou, the work redefined stress. Rumors abounded that the prisoners, on their way to detention at Camp X-Ray, chanted "death to America." Some swore aloud to kill Americans before leaving the island. Health-care providers were told to keep their pockets free of pens, to count syringes and scissors at the end of each shift. They placed tape over their own nametags and never turned their backs on patients.
The first ambulances from the prison across the camp carried seven men. Three needed surgery, including one whose leg wound was so badly infected he needed an amputation. "We heard they'd been with the American [Taliban] John Walker Lindh and fought alongside him," she says. "We knew they had killed Americans."