One of the conflicts doctors face in wartime is that they are often asked to do something that is against their healing instincts, because curing a soldier and returning him to the front may mean sending him to his death. This complicates our oath to ‘do no harm.’ I wanted to examine a doctor faced by such choices.
Interview with Daniel Mason
Winter Soldier is a riveting story of a medical student and a mysterious nun, Margarete, thrown together in a makeshift hospital in an abandoned church in the Austro-Hungarian region of World War I. With a pew for a surgical table and forays to the woods for sustenance, they compassionately offer care to the limbless and horrifically disfigured soldiers in their care. In time, it became a love story. In time, it became a fight for individual choice vs. a doctor’s need to pursue medical care beyond the scope of his duties.
Twenty-two year old, Lucius Krzelewski, was born to a wealthy Polish aristocratic family living in Vienna. His father, an ardent patriot, spent his days reliving the glory days of the fierce soldiers known as the Polish Winged Hussars. He did his best efforts to instill that military fervor in his youngest son, but Lucius showed no aptitude or interest in becoming a soldier.
Lucius wanted to become a doctor and pursued his dream. He found the study of neurology and the workings of the mind particularly intriguing, but overall, by his sixth year, he was a frustrated medical student. All books and no hands-on patient contact. When war broke out, medical students with six of their eight years training completed were allowed to enlist as medical lieutenants and work alongside doctors as assistants.
Shortly after enlisting, Lucius received several brief assignments with disappointing duties. His fifth assignment was to the front lines of the war, to a place he was led to believe was a fully equipped Regimental Hospital of the Third Army in the Carpathian mountains in the tiny village of Lemnowice. A duty assignment that assured access to surgeries and trauma training. Lucius was about to face a side of humanity he would never learn from textbooks.
Standing before the door to the Regimental Hospital, a small bombed wooden church constructed of rough-hewn logs, he wondered if he should just turn around and head back to Vienna.
He knocked on the door. An eye appeared in the narrow window.
Krzelewski. Medical lieutenant. Fourteenth Regiment. Third Army.
The door opened. A nursing sister with a rifle dangling from her hand stood before him.
May I speak to the supervising physician? . . .
She replied . . . Didn’t you just say you’re him?
Lucius, stepping into the church, was about to meet the one person that would change his life in many ways, Sister Margarete of the Sisters of Saint Catherine. The diminutive nun with the mental strength of a Winged Hussar held true to her position when typhus claimed the lives of 3 of the nurses, one doctor fled from cowardice and the last fled in the middle of the night from losing his mind. Aided by the hand of God, Margarete, exhibiting her superior sense of practicality, did what had to be done in the two months she was alone.
Since December, there have been forty amputations, on twenty-three men. . .
And who, Sister Margarete, has performed the amputations?
And whose had was he directing?
She held up her little hands.
The little nun, with respect, trained the medical student, and together, with nothing more than, scalpel, morphine and ether did what they could to save the men that streamed through the church door. Until one day, a winter soldier arrived curled in a fetal position in a wheelbarrow. The man could not move or speak although he had no physical injuries. His arrival changes the dynamics of the story.
This review has given me fits for days. I find it hard to describe Lucius’ love for science, his discovery of deep personal strengths and tenacity, and his need to accept that the needs of the many out-weigh the intense needs of one in war. And dear Margarete, we never learn her secrets, but we are privy to her humor, her intense compassion, and total acceptance of the present. If you will permit me, I see a fiery young Shirley McClain with a soft heart and Kenny Roger’s ability to “know when to hold ’em , know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away.”