17 NOV 2007 Hospital stars
Last night we had a movie premiere on Balad Air Base. In 2005, director Terry Sanders started a documentary on the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. It is the nation's only military medical school. It was started as a sort of West Point for medicine. While he was at the medical school, he heard so much about the surgical care of injured troops in Iraq, that he arranged to bring a film crew to our hospital in early 2006. The resulting film, "Fighting for Life" ( http://www.fightingforlifethemovie.com/ ) is an incredibly intimate look at what a soldier goes through as they are treated in Iraq, then the evacuation hospital in Germany, and finally back in the United States.
The premiere was held in the H6 housing pod complex movie theater. The theater is a small one, it holds 65 people. It is basically a big room with a small grandstand built towards one end. Movies are projected from a DVD player onto the broad white front wall. The theater is on one end of the H6 recreation center. The recreation center is a large aluminum building like an airplane hanger. It is surrounded by concrete bunkers. From the outside, it is a non-descript tan-greay metal building that doesn't stand out from the others. When you walk through the warehouse doors, you see an expanse of round tables where troops play Texas Hold-em. To the right is a stage. there is karaoke equipment and a Bingo board on the wall. In the far corner to the right is a widescreen TV for watching sports and in the near corner to the left is a widescreen TV for watching any of the collection of DVDs that fill shelves lining the wall. Closer to the left is a bank of computers on which troops play videogames, battling against each other on virtual fields of combat or boxing rings. Straight on are a few pool tables, and to the left is a bar that sells smoothies. Far overhead ceiling lights shine down on the cement floor like they do in a Lowe's hardware store.
We walked through the recreation center to the double doors at the far left behind the pool tables. Here we entered the theater. The first five rows were reserved for the commander's party. The remaining rows in the back filled quickly a half an hour befor the show. I sat with two of the Emergency medicine doctors C. and J. We talked about kids back home, housing markets, and challenging cases that had come through recently. The commander came in with our own hospital commander and some other staff. Orthopedic surgeon S. sat near us. The front rows were actually black faux leather couches. The whole set up reminded me of the TV room in our fraternity, Zeta Delta Xi. One of the Public Affairs officials made a brief announcement. Terry had given him the film, and since the movie hasn't been released to general audiences yet, he had been sworn to protect it. If the business in bootleg films at the Iraqi bazaar is any indication, intellectual property law doesn't seem to have much reach in Iraq, so it was an appropriate warning.
The movie was an incredibly accurate portrayal of the mood and events along the pipeline of care. The pipeline starts at the battlefield, and carries a troop through to home. They might visit a batallion aid station, then come to us at the Level III hospital at Balad. After we have stabilized them, troops are evacuated to Germany, and eventually to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Mr. Sanders has the ability to step back and just let the story tell itself. There wasn't a word of narration. You never get to hear the questions asked, only the answers of the patients and the providers who treat them.
I learned a lot about USUHS from the movie. Much of the footage there showed me that the medicial students at USUHS go through the universal experience that all doctors share. Their statements could have easily been mine or my classmates from a different school and a decade before. But the military nature of their training is different. Emergency medicine doctor C. is a USUHS alumna and I asked her, "Do you really have to wear your uniform to class every day?" She replied that they did. The movie also followed students as they completed their Bushmaster field exercise, which was at a level equivalent to military medical training I did as an attending surgeon. It was an amazing new world to see.
Most touching was the report of an injured troop the crew folled from the time of her injury to her release home months later. In her face I saw so many patients I had treated before. It was so rewarding to see the destination, since I only get to see the beginning of the journey. The beginning here in Iraq is such a violent and precarious start for these injured troops that my pessimism often clouds my view of their potential recoveries.
Of course we had the most fun picking out people that we knew on screen. ER tech B. was a big star, and was working as hard in the film as I see him work everytime a trauma code comes in the door. Surgeons J. and S. were featured as they conducted the morning rounds and cared for fresh wounded.
Before Mr. Sanders visited Iraq, he asked me for my thoughs about the hospital. I gave him advice about a few items to bring to make his stay a little more comfortable. As for the best story to get at the hospital, I told him to just watch. Just turning on the camera I knew he was bound to see the daily stories of heroism and dedication that mark the fine troops we meet every day.