Dr. Coppola, author of Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq, had reservations as he left behind his wife and three sons for a war he did not understand. But Dr. Coppola would fulfill the promise he made to six years of service in exchange for a military-issued medical scholarship that allowed him to pursue his dream of being a pediatric surgeon. Twice-deployed to the 332nd Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad, Dr. Coppola bore witness to some of the most appalling aspects of war, including soldiers and children battered and mutilated in the crossfire. Shaken by what he saw, he passed sleepless nights writing letters to friends and family. Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq draws on the pain of these letters, revealing an uncomfortable side of the war yet to be told.
How did you decide which surgeries/patients to put in the book?
Dr. Coppola: I wrote my experiences at the Air Force Theater Hospital in Iraq as they happened. I sent home long emails whenever medical duties were light enough to allow a moment of reflection. The people I write about in the book are those whose stories and lives most touched people back home. Usually, I could tell which stories were going to arouse the interest of loved ones in San Antonio because these were the ones that struck me to the core. Sometimes, though, I was surprised that after I had mentioned what I felt to have been a routine operation, I received a flurry of emails asking for the next chapter of the story. Then I knew I had stumbled onto something worth telling.
What are the types of medical equipment/supplies that are still needed in Iraq?
Dr. Coppola:Fortunately, our experiences at the hospital in Balad, as well as the Army hospital in Baghdad, have given us reliable information about what kind of specialized equipment is needed to care for children. We learned that a greater supply of intravenous catheters, endotracheal breathing tubes, and chest tubes would be needed in smaller sizes for any hospital in the war zone. Subsequent hospital groups have put this information to good use in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But what is needed more than particular supplies is stability in the region so that the local national hospitals can provide the needed services to the people. It is very hard to keep a hospital up and running when there is not dependable electricity or safety for the staff and patients.
What was your greatest challenge in re-establishing your private practice after your first deployment?
Dr. Coppola: Since leaving the military, I have joined Geisinger Medical Center. I work as a pediatric surgeon, an associate of Geisinger — essentially an employee. Being a military surgeon was actually excellent preparation for being part of large medical institution. It has become second nature to work together with teammates to achieve a common goal and that is just what we do. After having survived two deployments, I have a feeling that I have seen true worry and misery, and I shouldn’t get too worked up about the little frustrations that are part of hospital life. Not too many challenges, I suppose.
What non-partisan ways can people who are inspired by your book, Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq, support returning troops who have been injured or disabled in combat?
Dr. Coppola:There are so many ways to show troops your appreciation. It is amazing to consider that these kids, who could be hanging out at a college or partying on spring break, have instead chosen to devote their youth to service of country. We owe them so much. I have tried to highlight a few simple ways to show troops our appreciation. It can be as simple as saying “Thank you” to a soldier you see in an airport or in your town.
Another great way, which my wife and I have chosen, is to donate to Fisher House. The Fisher Houses are a network of houses near military hospitals that function as a home away from home for the families of injured troops who are undergoing medical treatment at military hospitals. More information is available at http://www.fisherhouse.org. The most important way we can honor the sacrifices of injured troops is to exercise the freedoms that they have defended for us. This means to vote, exercise freedom of speech, and to take an active role in our communities.
What made you decide to write about your experiences?
Dr. Coppola: My usual work is caring for children who are born with birth defects or need simple elective operations to correct conditions such as hernias. While deployed to Iraq, I was asked to perform the duties of a general combat support trauma surgeon, and suddenly I was caring for severely and multiply injured patients of all ages. This stress was compounded by the fact that I was so far from my wife and children who are my usual source of strength and peace.
During the busy hours, work on patients kept me from contemplating the significance of what I was seeing. But later when the hospital was calm and I could retire to my hooch, the horrific images of torn bodies would keep me up at night. Sometimes I went without sleep for days on end. It helped me greatly to write down what I had experienced, and send home these messages to my loved ones who usually got me through stressful times. It unburdened my mind to have made sure that the events I had witnessed were recorded. These long letters later became the book Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq.
For more information, please visit the book’s website at www.coppolathebook.com.