ALISON STEWART, host.
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart. All this month, we've been looking at how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have affected members of the U.S. military and their families, especially after the servicemen and women return home. Today, our "Impact of War" series continues with a visit to the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Treated here are young men and women with some of the most horrific and disfiguring injuries imaginable. The medical staff who dress their wounds and help ease their agonizing pain fight a daily emotional battle of their own. Texas public radio's Terry Gildea has this look at those who treat the wounded.
Unidentified Man: Hey, you're holding steady. OK, flex.
TERRY GILDEA: The occupational therapy room in the burn unit smells of antiseptic and sweat. In one corner, a therapist examines the wound on a soldier's head, burned completely down to the skull. In another area, a patient rides a stationary bike slowly, trying to rebuild muscles in what's left of his badly burned legs. Inside this room, burn patients push through their pain in the relentless pursuit of one goal, getting their lives back to normal.
Forty-one-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Maria Serio-Melvin is a veteran in caring for savage burns. She is a critical care nurse specialist in charge of improving nursing practices for the 16-bed burn Intensive Care Unit. I scrub in to the sterile environment, and observe Melvin as she supervises the care of a man severely burned over more than half of his body. Most of his torso is an open wound, layers of tissue charred, oozing with fluid.
Lieutenant Colonel MARIA SERIO-MELVIN (Critical Care Nurse Specialist, Brooke Army Medical Center): Notice how graphic it is. I look at this stuff very scientifically and from a medical perspective, at the same time still trying to be nurturing and compassionate, and realizing that this is a human being in a bed who is awake, or half awake, who can still hear.
GILDEA: Captain Christine Broger is an Army nurse working next to Melvin. She cuts away dead tissue from the patient's wounds, a process that can cause unspeakable pain, but this patient is heavily sedated.
Captain CHRISTINE BROGER (Army Nurse, Brooke Army Medical Center): We're in here for up to four to five hours on a burn dressing. From the time we come in and start cutting down to the time that we exit the room and have them prepared for the family to come visit, that could be four to five hours.
GILDEA: Badly burned patients often spend many months in recovery. Lieutenant Colonel Melvin says it's difficult not to become attached to them. She remembers one in particular. When Marine Sergeant Merlin German arrived here from Iraq, he had burns over 97 percent of his body. He spent more than 500 days in this hospital. And to the surprise of medical staff, he began to recover. But German died unexpectedly during a routine surgery. Melvin remembers getting a phone call late at night.
Lieutenant Colonel SERIO-MELVIN: Just literally started crying. Just standing here at the counter, on the phone, just crying. And John's like, Maria, what's wrong? What's going on? And then, you know, I had to let him know. I'm like, John, I've got to go into work. I just have to go in. I have to go in and say goodbye.
GILDEA: Melvin was asked to participate in German's memorial service at the hospital. She chose a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, one often used for Marines killed in the line of duty.
(Soundbite of passage from the book of Isaiah)
Lieutenant Colonel SERIO-MELVIN: (Reading) So do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
GILDEA: Melvin says one of the ways she deals with stress and grief on the job is talking with her husband, Major John Melvin. He is also an ICU nurse at the medical center.
Lieutenant Colonel SERIO-MELVIN: You just need to tell a story of how someone got burned in your day. And all he needed to do was just listen. He didn't have to say a word, he just needed to listen. And I felt so much better.
GILDEA: The staff is acutely aware of the fragility of their patients, and the pressure takes a toll on doctors and nurses. People here call it compassion fatigue. It's enough of a problem that the Army has implemented a program to help the staff. Counselors are available, and the hospital is creating a respite room where staff can escape temporarily from the job. Lieutenant Colonel Cynthia Spencer is a psychiatric nurse at the hospital. She says in a military culture, service members don't like to admit they need help.
Lieutenant Colonel CYNTHIA SPENCER (Psychiatric Nurse, Brooke Army Medical Center): Some people would say it was a sign of weakness. And I am starting to see - and I'm so happy at this point in my career - that people are saying it's not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. And when you take care of yourself, then you can take better care of other people.
GILDEA: Lieutenant Colonel Melvin also finds solace in the normalcy of family life. She and her husband have three children, ages 16, 11, and almost two years. When mom and dad work long hours at the hospital, the two older boys pitch in with watching their little sister. Every Saturday morning, the Melvins make breakfast together. Pancakes and bacon are usually on the menu.
Major JOHN MELVIN (ICU Nurse, Brooke Medical Center): Do you want to whip it together some more?
Unidentified Child: (Unintelligible)
Major MELVIN: No, go ahead. I'll work on the bacon. You work on that.
GILDEA: Maria Melvin says it's very important to her and her husband to maintain a balance between work and family.
Lieutenant Colonel SERIO-MELVIN: We're tired. We work darn hard at what we do. And we give so much of ourselves all day long at our job that sometimes we may not have a lot left for here. And it concerns both of us. But we just do it. It just is who we are.
GILDEA: Maria Melvin's job is about to get a whole lot harder. Her husband, John, deploys to Iraq this month. For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea.