At about the same time Liz and I began writing about creating a world fit for kids back in January, Liz stumbled upon Chris Coppola, a US military surgeon blogging in Iraq. Chris's posts were an engaging, realistic look at one individual's experience in the face of impossibility, and a mesmerizing portrayal of showing up, one day at a time, to do what's possible. (So engaging, in fact, that he and his wife got a book of his posts published; they donate the proceeds to Fisher House, a non-profit that provides support and housing for the families of injured troops.)
We wrote and told him we were fans and asked if he'd ever consider a guest blog for HumanKind, and oh, by the way, we're writing about creating a world fit for children. As a father, a pediatric surgeon, and someone who was seeing many Iraqi children casualties, he was extremely qualified to write about the topic.
Fast forward a month, and Chris is home again with his wife and children, back at his old hospital, and still blogging -- about pediatrics and Iraq, but also about sushi and choices of operating room music. We hadn't forgotten about him, but we hadn't exactly remembered him, either, when surprise! He sent us a wonderful blog about creating a world fit for children. Today, we are so pleased to bring it to you; click on "Continue reading" below this post for Chris's blog. To our readers, we hope you enjoy this post as much as we did. To our friend Chris Coppola, a million thanks for this offering and for the work you're doing in the world.
I am a pediatric surgeon who lives and works in San Antonio, TX. When I trained to operate on children for both emergency and routine medical needs, I never thought that I would be sent to use my skills in the war zone. I am also an active duty member of the United States Air Force. Just as I was about to finish my pediatric surgery fellowship at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., The United States invaded Iraq. For the first two years of the war, I was stationed in San Antonio and my job was very similar to that of a civilian pediatric surgeon. Each day I would see children in my clinic to check them for hernias or operate late at night when a child was suffering with appendicitis. But for five months in 2005 and then again in 2007, I was deployed to Iraq to work as a trauma surgeon in combat support hospital in Balad, Iraq, north of Baghdad.
The conditions and events in our hospital were much as you might imagine them. Every day, the medics brought us soldiers who had been shot or blown up in the conflict. They came by helicopter and by ambulance. Some of the wounds were very minor, often due to the protective effects of body armor and helmets, but all too often the injuries were disfiguring or worse. We amputated many limbs in our hospital. If a patient made it to us alive, they had a 94% chance of surviving, but I remember vividly the ones who died in our trauma bay or in the middle of last ditch operations to try and stop the bleeding. In our hospital we treated Americans, Iraqis, insurgents, and civilians: anyone who came through the door. They all got our best effort to keep them alive.
One population that I had not expected to treat was the large number of children who were brought to our hospital. Unfortunately, modern warfare often occurs in urban centers, and children are the most vulnerable victims of conflict. It was heartbreaking to see small children and babies injured by bullets and fragments from explosions. Some we lost, and others were permanently brain damaged by fragments of metal that pierced their skulls. But we took strength from the victories in the form of children’s lives we were able to save. And I saw daily evidence of something that I had known to be true in my heart ever since my parents raised me and my four siblings. No matter who people are or what country they are from, they love their children dearly and want the best in life for them.
When I would treat injured children, many times their parents would accompany them to the hospital. Even though barriers of language, culture, and religion made it hard to communicate, I could tell in an instant the strong love parents had for their children and the fear they felt for their welfare. That emotion is instantly transmitted in form of a protective embrace, a calming caress or a gentle comforting voice. Just I always do when I treat injured children back home, I tried to keep the parent close so that their presence could erase some of the fear and pain felt by the child. With the help of our tireless interpreters, I did my best to convey to the parents that I would use every faculty at my disposal to treat their child and do my best to try and get them through this ordeal alive. The look of love, hope, and fear in their eyes was no different than any parent anywhere.
Our hospital staff was a hardworking team of troops pulled together from military hospitals throughout the US Department of Defense. Whenever a child needed help, I could see them redouble their efforts to make sure that child got the best. Care of children had high priority, and even when tired and overworked, our technicians, nurses, and doctors made sure that injured children got what they needed. For me, with a chosen profession directed toward the care of children, it was an easy calculation to rank the treatment of children highly. But I saw specialists from all walks of medicine give that extra effort to make our hospital resources provide children with what they needed. I think perhaps they saw something of their own children, far away across the Atlantic, in these smallest victims of the war.
We treated one child in our hospital who had suffered a gunshot wound to the neck. She survived, but she developed a painful swelling in her neck. The mass was an abnormal bloated blood vessel that throbbed, and was a danger for producing blood clots or a stroke. The problem was in a very complicated location, just at the entrance to the skull. As luck would have it, two of our trauma doctors happened to have experience fixing this type of problem back in the U.S. We had to order some special equipment to be flown in from the military hospital in Germany. While we waited for it to arrive, we got to know the girl and her father well. The girl became a whiz at the Wii bowling video game and was adept at beating the staff and recovering soldiers on the ward. Finally, the specialized devices arrived. Using delicate catheters and a special operating table with an x-ray machine, they were able to eliminate the abnormal blood vessel. After a few days’ recovery, the girl was back to her high scores at bowling. When the girl and her father left the hospital, we said goodbye to friends.
Another time, the medics flew a pregnant woman to us by helicopter. She had been shot through her hips and lower abdomen. Our tests confirmed our fears: her uterus had been injured by the bullets and was bleeding. Fortunately we had an experienced obstetrical nurse who had been assigned to our hospital. She was able to detect by sonography that her unborn child was still alive. None of us was an obstetrician. We knew there were risks to delivering her child, but if we hesitated, we might lose them both. We took her to the operating room and delivered a healthy baby boy by Caesarean section. The mother had lost a lot of blood and needed to recover in the intensive care unit. The birth of a new baby electrified our hospital staff. Everyone took a moment to come by and visit the new baby. Nurses and doctors took turns feeding him bottles of formula. A few days passed and his mother recovered enough to hold him for the first time and feed the boy herself. We felt a great victory when we were able to send this new mother and child home in good condition. It was as if something beautiful had been snatched away from the ugly appetite of war.
I think this universal joy and love for children is something that should guide us as we search for peace in the war in Iraq. It benefits no one to have an environment where the precious lives of these children are vulnerable to the precarious whims of violence. I think that the desire for a world where all our children can grow safe, healthy, and strong can build bridges between our cultures to find a place where there is no imaginable reason to wage war.