A Child's Doctor Turns To Iraq War's Youngest Victims

Dr. Chris Coppola was a pediatrician in the U.S. before he shipped off to Iraq. As a military surgeon, he expected to treat soldiers, but he found himself helping war-ravaged Iraqi children as well. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Dr. Coppola about his memoir, Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Dr. Chris Coppola was able to fulfill his dream of becoming a pediatric surgeon because of a military-issue medical scholarship. In return, he made a promise to serve for six years. Dr. Coppola was deployed twice to Balad Air Force Base in Iraq to provide combat surgical support. He calls it the million dollar experience I wouldn't pay a dime for.

In October 2007, he was featured in story by NPR's Guy Raz.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER COPPOLA (Pediatric Surgeon, Author, "Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq"): We're no smarter than Vietnam-era surgeons. We just are, I think, reaping the advantage of technology and vehicles.

HANSEN: Dr. Chris Coppola has written a memoir about that experience in a new book, "Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq," and he's in the studio. Welcome to the program.

Dr. COPPOLA: Thank you so much for having me.

HANSEN: When you were deployed, you knew you were going to help injured soldiers. Did you expect to treat children?

Dr. COPPOLA: No. And it's odd. I really should've anticipated that. But I knew I was going to a combat support hospital. It was our hospital in Balad, Iraq, just north of Baghdad. But the way warfare is these days in Iraq, civilians including children, are unfortunately, they're in the gun sites.

HANSEN: There were also a lot of children coming into the base for treatment, because they couldn't get the treatment that they needed at whatever hospitals existed in Iraq, right?

Dr. COPPOLA: Yes, the times when I was there in '05 and then in '07 to '08, the infrastructure of the country, including medical support, was completely disrupted. I mean, we did work with some Iraqi doctors, and they would tell me about taking care of patients in a hospital that had power for four hours a day, usually did not have running water. And so they would be facing multiple burn victims, multiple explosion victims at the same time and with very little help.

HANSEN: Tell us about Leila(ph), one of the patients you treated.

Dr. COPPOLA: Leila was a two-year-old girl. Her father was a local commander for the Iraqi army. And he was actually getting a lot of headway in clearing out terrorists, clearing out al-Qaida. One of the al-Qaida operatives threw an incendiary device through the glass window of his house and burned Leila, two-year-old, her two-week-old sister and their mother.

HANSEN: I want you to tell us about when you were trying to do the skin graft for her. And it was one of those instances where the needs of the soldiers were coming right up against the needs of this small child.

Dr. COPPOLA: I had set out to do a four, five-hour operation to graft her healthy skin onto her burns. And no sooner had I started then we received an alert of a mass casualty event. And my commander, and he was the trauma czar of the hospital, he said: Stop this operation. Get this girl out of here. Get ready to receive soldiers.

And I couldn't do it. I couldn't throw away her healthy skin I had harvested. And I looked around the room and I told the group working with me, I said, let's move fast. And it was a difficult decision to make. It was one of the times that my role as an officer and my role as a physician were in stark contrast to each other.

HANSEN: And as you mentioned, Leila eventually passed away.

Dr. COPPOLA: She did.

HANSEN: You also treated an insurgent who was injured when the device he had exploded unexpectedly. What was going through your mind when you were healing someone who was planning to kill?

Dr. COPPOLA: That actually happened several times. And so, in my book I've tried condense narrative and actually combine characters to try to get the feeling across to the reader. And so this was an incredibly difficult thing to do. And it was very hard to maintain a level of professionalism as this man was spitting on the nurses trying to take care of him. And I couldn't handle it well. And it actually took one of the seasoned nurses to remind me what our job was.

And so as difficult as it was to care for people whose aim had been to kill us and to kill our countrymen, we did it. And not only did we medical professionals do it, when we put out a call for blood donations for this man, who hours before had tried to blow us up, soldiers, 19, 20-year-old soldiers rushed in to donate their blood to try to save his life. It was incredible to be a part of that common work together to try to save lives.

HANSEN: On the cover of your book there is a picture of a child with a bandaged arm, and he's holding a yellow piece of paper that says: Coppola. What's the significance of this photograph?

Dr. COPPOLA: I was on duty one night at the hospital, and I was called from the guard station and they said, there's a family here and they have a piece of paper and it's got your name. It's got your name. It says, Coppola: Doctor for kids. Do you know anything about it? I said, no, I don't anything about it. And he said, what do you want me to do? I said, well, send them in.

And it turned out to be a child who had a hernia. It was simple thing. And so we set him up. It turns I had taken care of the nephew of one of our Iraqi translators. And that family went back to their town - it was a small village, pretty close - and told people, oh, they have this doctor who takes care of kids. And so this was another family from that same town and showed up at the gate with my name on a slip of paper.

HANSEN: Dr. Chris Coppola. His memoir is called "Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq." He joined me in the studios in Washington, D.C. Thanks for coming in.

Dr. COPPOLA: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to be here today.

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