Christopher Coppola M.D. doesn't fit the stereotypical mold of a warrior. And yet, in his book, he proves that the warrior path is much more encompassing than what most expect. As a physician who has served two tours of duty in Iraq to a military hospital in Balud, the former US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel provides a riveting look at children in war zones in the book, Coppola, A Pediatric Surgeon In Iraq. As in the Forward Surgical Team Unit, the book hits the ground running:
"The techs wheel the patient into the trauma bay and flip out legs from the gurney to support the head and feet of the litter. I move in and look down at the patient lying on the stretcher. It is a child who looks to be about two years old. I had expected to see a soldier or at least an adult, and the sight of a child is jarring."
Coppola writes of an unending caseload soldiers, but it's the children who are his main focus. Combat hospitals anticipate handling trauma cases that involve soldiers. However, locals and children make up a good portion of the patients seen everyday. Coppola's expertise is in the obvious but overlooked: the children who are victims in a war conducted in an urban setting. These are the children of families who for a variety of reasons, could not get out. Coppola catches glimpses of a pre-war Iraq, when there were doctors at a formerly state-of-the-art local hospital. With an absence of enough Iraqi physicians, pediatric cases are sent to Dr. Coppola. He treats everything from burns to leishmaniasis, a parasite that attacks the liver, which is carried by sandflies that breed in open sewage and standing pools of water.
This is the war stripped down to flesh and bones. He writes a harrowing account of MASCAL, an acronym for mass casualties. It's the sound of helicopters, the smell of fuel, the quickness with which the soldiers are brought in, the quick discernment figuring out what each person needs. But it's not all, wedged in between are patients such as Leila, one member of an entire family whose house is firebombed by insurgents because her father worked for the Iraqi National Guard. The little girl has two-thirds of her body burned, much of this third degree. Working on Leila, and also attending to the demands of a MASCAL situation is a matter of constantly shifting and balancing time.
The crew helps her along, through many operations, eventually falling in love with her. "I knew her long enough to learn that her favorite stuffed animal was a pink bear, she loved chips and snacks, and her giggles brought joy to her mother and father," writes Coppola.
Sadly, Leila becomes the confirmation of all that's wrong with war: in the end, this young victim dies.
Coppola makes an excellent case for the military to ensure that combat hospitals are not only stocked, but have a pediatric surgeon on staff to take care of the smallest victims. During his six month deployment in Balad, Coppola had 85 pediatric cases, making up a full 5% of the patient load. Included in this book is his study, which Coppola presented to the military medical community. One thing to note: during the surge in Iraq, the number of cases went down as the violence started to recede. However, Al Qaeda then started to go after civilians, and children were all too often included among their victims.
A Pediatric Surgeon In Iraq presents a different side of the war. Coppola is at his best when presenting a convincing case to make allowances for the care of the youngest victims of war. Now in private practice, this surgeon will forever carry with him the experience of war as he goes forth as a surgeon in a large urban medical practice on the east coast.
(Ten percent of all book sales go to War Child, a registered charity providing humanitarian assistance to war-affected children around the world).
Photos courtesy of Christopher Coppola, M.D.