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Op-Ed: As a doctor on ‘MASH,’ Hawkeye showed me how to get through this war on the coronavirus

Alan Alda with "MASH" castmates Mike Farrell and Harry Morgan.
Alan Alda, left, with “MASH” castmates Mike Farrell and Harry Morgan. To one 9-year-old, Alda’s Hawkeye character was everything.
(CBS)

It’s summer 2020, the midpoint of the ultimate annus horribilis. My kids and I are tucked away at a cabin on what feels like the edge of humanity: No Wi-Fi, no video games and, thankfully, no COVID-19. Besides my laptop, our only tech is an ancient DVD player and antiquated DVDs. Thumbing through them, my eldest son holds up a disc and asks, “What’s ‘MASH’”?

I tell him it’s a comedy about the Korean War. Skeptical, he asks the obvious: How can you have a comedy about a war?

In the pause that follows, I look for a way to explain that it’s really a story about all wars, the ones in and outside of us. It’s a story that carried me through hard years, and one man made that possible: Alan Alda, who starred as surgeon Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce on the series that originally ran from 1972 to 1983.

Who did I want to be when I grew up? Hawkeye. Who did I want to marry? Alda. When I was 9, a group of my girlfriends found me leaning against a chain-link fence in the schoolyard, crying. They thought something terrible had happened — and in my mind, it had. In math class that morning, I’d figured out Alda was 39 years my senior. He wasn’t going to marry me, with my stupid My Little Pony collection and fake Cabbage Patch doll. I was nobody to Alan Alda. But he was everything to me.

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My house was not the happiest place. My sister had a severe brain injury and my brother had his first psychotic break while I was in elementary school. My sleep was just as likely to be punctured by one of my siblings’ screams as Hawkeye’s operating room was to be imploded by random artillery shells.

My other sister didn’t have any medical problems but she did have a black-and-white television. Night after night, I’d sneak into her room after bedtime to watch “MASH” reruns. The minute that guitar hit the first plaintive notes of “Suicide Is Painless,” we were transfixed. We lapped it all up — Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s lax leadership, Radar’s ability to keep the camp running, Klinger’s campaigns to be found unfit. But our affection was reserved for our lifeline: Hawkeye.

Perhaps because nobody could solve our family’s problems, we took an inexplicable degree of comfort from watching him solve them for other people. We loved his woundedness. We were spellbound by his tears, his outbursts, his sessions with brilliant psychiatrist Dr. Freedman — depths of emotion we couldn’t articulate about our own bewildering lives.

In our “Dispatches From the Pandemic” series, we bring you personal stories from people whose lives have been drastically altered by COVID-19.

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Hawkeye taught us that when your world is disintegrating, it is not only possible but utterly necessary to crack a joke — to create a counterpoint to what would otherwise be overwhelming. In his oscillations between laughter and gut-wrenching anguish, I recognized a shadow version of myself. He planted the seed of the idea that I would become a doctor.

From the first day I wore my white coat, I used humor as a grenade to lob at situations that were too awful for words, startling patients and families into laughter in ways that would have made Hawkeye proud. I channeled Hawkeye’s anger, raging bitterly at a broken system and colleagues who cared more for textbooks than for patients.

But I didn’t always know how to cope with that rage. As impossible as it sounds, I hadn’t known that Hawkeye has a nervous breakdown before the war ends; I didn’t catch the final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” until I was already a physician. I wasn’t sure how to interpret this development in the context of my devotion to him, except that laughter alone was not enough.

Now, in this summer like no other, I’m watching my children pick chokecherries and skip rocks, the COVID curve in much of Canada momentarily flattened by leadership and luck.

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But my legions of doctor friends on the other side of the border are engaged in full-on combat. When we Zoom, some are crying. One in New Jersey lost her mother, then her best friend. Another in California has left practice. An intensivist in Baltimore says she is hanging by a thread. Sentiments shared by nurses, orderlies, everyone. There are field hospitals, gear shortages and a shocking amount of incompetence from central command — like the fools on the telephone line in Seoul that Col. Potter used to shake his fist at, utterly disconnected from life on the ground.

The irony isn’t lost on me, that the job I chose because of Hawkeye is now at the center of a war.

So why would someone make a comedy about it? The answer comes to me as my kids and I watch “MASH” in the TV’s flickering light, safe in our cabin, the shells falling somewhere else right now. Humor is just shorthand for hope, a gamble we’ll live long enough to hear the punchline, whether in the face of hardship or the pathologic indifference to suffering that sows the seeds for war in the first place. And in a war of ideology, humor correlates to the most important thing of all: resistance.

That’s my blueprint for survival, the one Hawkeye taught me so many years ago. Be brave. Be kind. Be funny, because humor shines a powerful light on hypocrisy and absurdity while reminding us we are tough, and still alive. Be principled. Be ready to break down and get put back together again. Build a chain-link fence around love and faith in the things you still believe in, then resist, resist, resist, and don’t stop until Goodbye, Farewell and Amen. There is no other way to make it through this war.

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Jillian Horton is an internist in Canada and author of the forthcoming memoir “We Are All Perfectly Fine.” @jillianhortonMD


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