Subscribe to RSS

Powered by Blogger

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by

Search Blog:

Sunday, January 07, 2007


I am proud to share the same name with this man. Let's buy his book.

Iraq medic poured a troubled heart into e-mails

Web Posted: 01/06/2007 10:43 PM CST

Cindy Tumiel

Thousands of miles from home, lonely for his wife and children, and saddened by the casualties that rolled daily through his operating room, Air Force surgeon Maj. Christopher Coppola found solace in his laptop computer at the end of his shift, using sleepless nights in Iraq to compose long e-mails that kept him connected with family and friends.

Sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-rending, the missives described daily life in a tent-and-trailer hospital on the dusty Balad Air Base, where wounded American soldiers and, sometimes, Iraqi civilians came for life-saving surgeries in a nation disrupted by war.

The doctor's newsletters proved popular --friends who got them passed them along, and eventually Coppola ended up with 200 or more correspondents who waited to hear from him weekly and worried if he was late.

Once Coppola returned to his home base at Wilford Hall Medical Center, his wife, Meredith, took up the project of compiling the e-mails into a book. They hope it will raise money for the Fisher House Foundation, which provides housing near military hospitals for families of the soldiers who receive care there.

"I felt like I was doing something for the troops when I was there," said Coppola, who was at the Balad military support hospital from January through May of 2005. "I felt that I was needed. Now, after coming home, I still want to do something for Fisher House."

The Coppolas put about $2,000 of their own money into the self-published book "Made a Difference for That One." It sells for $14.95 and is available through online bookstores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. So far the Coppolas have donated $600 in royalties to the housing organization.

On the Web

* Fisher House Foundation

His four-month tour in Iraq was his first, and Coppola says the hardest part of the duty was being away from Meredith and his three sons. At night, he retreated to his quarters in a mobile trailer, where he often lay awake for hours.

"I found it hard to sleep in Iraq," he said. "Writing was sort of what I did with my insomnia."

Initially, the letters were for a few family and friends and chatty enough so that his son, Ben, then 11, could share them with his fourth-grade class at Stone Oak Elementary. But the initial recipients started forwarding them to other friends, and soon Coppola had a distribution list of close to 200 people who waited for his reports.

"He started getting e-mails from people he didn't even know," said Meredith Coppola. "A few people suggested to him that we should put them together in a book."

The doctor's words put a humorous spin on some of the dangerous elements of wartime routines. The base has been nicknamed Mortaritaville for the frequent shelling by insurgents, and medical staff learns to live with the thud of munitions--many of them old and unarmed — that are flung into the camp. All the buildings -- even the portable bathrooms -- are buffered with sandbags to protect occupants from shrapnel that may fly.

Coppola himself is preoccupied with food, relaying details of many meals, both good and bad. He started a small garden of roses, sunflowers and cilantro in some of the sandbags; he shaved his head to keep cool.

Still, he writes, "It hurts to see and hear the victims of war as it thrashes about. I water my plants and watch tiny things grow slow in such stark opposition to the precarious and indiscriminate violence that occurs."

The casualties never cease. Soldiers lose feet and legs to insurgent bombings and some of them die. A pediatric surgeon by training, Coppola also tends to Iraqi children who are maimed and burned by explosives.

One was a 2-year-old girl who died from her burns. Weeks later, he operated on an Iraqi man who had been shot in the intestine, and later learned the patient was actually the insurgent who had firebombed the child's home. It was one of his most difficult times as a doctor, he wrote.

"We struggle along through highs and lows, but some things just take the wind out of your sails and knock you to your knees," Coppola wrote. "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."

The book's title is drawn from an oft-told story about a young man who undertakes the futile task of saving thousands of starfish that have been washed ashore.

As the man scurries along the beach, tossing the small animals back into the surf, an observer asks how he could ever possibly make a difference.

"Made a difference for that one,' the man says as he throws another starfish into the life-saving water.

© Copyright Ears XXI Inc. All Rights Reserved