The shooting begins as we clear the checkpoint. Ibrahim pulls over, waiting for the gunfire to stop. Up ahead, a car has been pushed off the road, the driver abducted moments earlier.
"Do you want to turn around?" asks Said, the interpreter who's going with me to Baghdad's busiest emergency room.
Earlier, attackers fired mortar shells into a Sunni Arab neighborhood south of us. Ambulances, taxis and private cars are now speeding to Yarmouk Hospital, carrying bloodied victims.
But here the street is deserted, eerie. The empty, smashed-up car seems a bad omen.
I hesitate. How do you calculate the odds in Baghdad? That which is most dangerous is that which you don't know. And we don't know what's ahead.
"Let's continue," I tell Ibrahim and Said.
Violence has worsened dramatically in Iraq since I arrived two years ago. About 100 people are killed every day. A woman in labor is killed by a roadside bomb on her way to a hospital. An impoverished mother scrapes together a ransom to free her kidnapped son; the captors take the money but kill her son anyway.
Some days, the victims become an abstraction, a line in a story. A mother -- maybe -- but not like your own mother.
As we pull up to the hospital, people are still arriving with their wounded relatives.
While a couple of officers check our papers in the lobby, another policeman accidentally fires his AK-47 into the stone floor. The sharp noise sends jumpy relatives, guards and us ducking for cover. The woman who has just checked my bag for weapons smiles broadly when she realizes this isn't an attack.
Inside the hospital, men and women crowd the corridors, crying in anguish as their loved ones cry in pain. The floor is littered with wads of bloody paper, cigarette butts and discarded surgical gloves. The beds have no sheets. It is easier to wipe blood from bare mattresses.
A middle-aged woman, a patient in the main ward, looks on, dazed, as doctors operate on a victim who has been wheeled into her room. One of the medics wears a stethoscope smeared with blood as he goes from patient to patient.
We talk to the doctors but stay away from the victims and relatives.
Hospitals are volatile places where grief can turn to rage in an unguarded moment.
A young surgeon, who insists on speaking English and being referred to as T.J., says the hospital has run out of morphine and other supplies.
His colleague Husam Abud, whose nails are rimmed with blood, looks tired.
Behind him, a woman has not been properly sedated. She screams as she rouses, seeing the doctors bent over her legs, a mess of exposed bone and flesh.
Today, the doctors will treat 38 people.
At the end of the day, they're all alive.
As we drive home, I know that for the next day's story, our trip wasn't worth the risk.
On TV, the mortar attack is just a throwaway line. The 38 wounded are eclipsed by reports of a videoconference between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, bodies found with burns and electrical drill wounds, kidnapped Iraqi soldiers and the bombing of a Shiite shrine.
But for me, going to the hospital transforms a throwaway line on TV into 38 people. One of them a mother, just like yours.