Made a Difference for That One is a close-up personal account of one military surgeon's experiences treating injured soldiers and civilians at an expeditionary hospital north of Baghdad.
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Made a Difference for That One
On 18 January 2005, my husband, pediatric surgeon Major Christopher Paul Coppola, left our home in San Antonio, Texas for a four-month deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In order to make our family separation a little easier, he decided to send home periodic updates, e-mails filled with information and stories about his life in a war zone.
Reading these letters, even a perfect stranger can get a pretty good idea of who Chris is. He loves good food (or bad food doused liberally with hot sauce), watching movies, gardening, and napping when and wherever possible. He has a nutty sense of humor, and loves being part of a great team, whether it be surgical or dodgeball. His writings convey his hope and humanity, as a surgeon, soldier, and citizen of the world. Most of all, Chris’s abiding love for his family shines through. I suppose these are some of the more important facts to know about a person, but I thought you should also know how Chris came to be on that plane in January, the road he took to arrive at that moment.
Chris felt from a young age he wanted to be a physician; by the time he finished high school, he knew pediatric surgery was his calling. With this aim in mind, he attended Brown University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry in 1990. It was in the fall of 1989 that joining the Air Force first became a possibility. Through the Health Professions Scholarship Program, Chris could be sworn in as a second lieutenant and perform four years of active duty service upon completion of his medical training. In return, the Air Force would pay for his education at the best medical school to accept him, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Chris and I became engaged shortly before he received his commission, and we had long talks about the risks and benefits of a military life, even if that life was 13 years in the future. In the end, the pros of serving his country (and graduating medical school debt-free!) outweighed any potential cons. We simply hoped and prayed the world would be at peace when it came Chris’s time to serve.
After finishing Johns Hopkins in 1994, Chris completed a general surgery residency at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut. Upon receiving permission from the Air Force to pursue further specialty training, we were off to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, where Chris finally achieved his dream of becoming a pediatric surgeon in May 2003.
Up to this point in Chris’s career, we had very little involvement with the military part of our lives. Aside from four months of training and service in medical school, his contact with the Air Force amounted to signing a big packet of forms once a year. Now, however, it was time for our family (including our three sons and a cat) to do our duty and report to San Antonio for a six-year commitment; two extra years had been added after the pediatric surgery fellowship. Wilford Hall Medical Center on Lackland Air Force Base is the Air Force’s largest hospital, and patients come from installations around the world for treatment and care. As a pediatric surgeon, Chris tends to anyone under the age of 18 who needs surgical care, whether it be an accident victim, case of two am appendicitis, or an elective procedure. He loves working with children and their families, and his patients greatly appreciate his efforts on their behalf.
We had been in Texas just a little over a year when Chris found out he was going to Iraq. This was hard news for our family; Chris would be stationed at Balad Air Base, nicknamed Mortaritaville for the daily shellings by insurgents. My anxiety was running high, but I took some comfort in the fact he would not be doing much in-country traveling, and had promised me to always wear his armor and helmet when outdoors. Still, the time apart was unwelcome to say the least, and could not pass quickly enough. When we picked him up safe and sound at the San Antonio Airport 14 May 2005, it was one of the best days of my life.
As you will see, although Chris’s main focus in Iraq was being a general surgeon for adults, he did find time and opportunity to utilize his specialized skills for helping Iraqi children. I know he will never forget any of the patients, young and old, who passed through his care during this time.
Chris Coppola is a proud soldier, caring physician, and loving son, father, and husband. We could ask for nothing more. I hope you will enjoy getting to know him through this book, his letters home.
22 June 2005
We struggle along through highs and lows, but some things just take the wind out of your sails and knock you to your knees. M. is the girl I cared for when she was badly burned, but unfortunately after a month here, she died. Later that month, I took care of an Iraqi man who was shot in the belly. I operated on him twice, as did some of my partners, and I visited him day after day on rounds. He lost some intestine, he had a wound infection, and after a long slow struggle of two weeks or so, he was well enough to leave the hospital. We weren’t sure if he was a local farmer or one of the insurgents. One day he would be a prisoner under guard, and the next we would receive word from security personnel that it was just a case of mistaken identity. Eventually, one of our translators, who is also an Iraqi National Guardsman, confirmed he was an insurgent who lived in the town of Balad; he routinely hijacked trucks and had even killed some of the men in our translator’s unit. A few days after he went to a detention facility in this country, I learned that the man I had nursed back to health was the one who had thrown the firebomb into M.’s house. I saw red. I instantly conceived of a variety of ways I could have meted justice on him with my own hands. I’ve taken care of drunks who have plowed into a family of five on the highway, in the bed next to the parents whose children were killed in the crash, but nothing prior had been as difficult as this. I was thankful I didn’t know who he was while he was here. I struggled with hatred for this man whose life had been in my hands, and slowly came to the resolution that the best I could do for me and for him was to pray for him. A few days later I learned that M.’s father, a soldier, was killed in action by insurgents. How will his wife rise above the loss of her daughter and her husband? I pray she finds peace.