Life and Death in the War Zone (2004)
While other reporters were embedded in fighting units during the Iraq War, NOVA was covering the emergency medical response, living night and day with the doctors, nurses, and medics in a frontline Combat Support Hospital (CSH). The program captures a period of the conflict in April and May of 2003 when CSH units faced a deluge of injured Iraqi soldiers and civilians who had little support from their country's collapsed health-care system. A 21st-century version of the Korean War-era MASH, or Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, the CSH is a maze of sleek tents connecting fully equipped operating rooms with X-ray, pharmacy, laboratory, in-patient wards, and other emergency medical services. And like the characters in "M*A*S*H," the television series, the CSH personnel are beset by constant ethical dilemmas that pit the team's commitment to treat injured Iraqis against the messy realities of war. It's a situation in which chance and bureaucratic policy often decide who lives and who dies. NOVA was stationed with two CSH units, the 10th and 21st, from the intense prewar preparations in the United States to deployment overseas. The 21st CSH followed U.S. troops into Iraq from Kuwait and set up at an air base in Balad in the hotly contested Sunni Triangle, with a smaller section sent to Mosul farther north. Meanwhile, the 10th CSH was part of the invasion force preparing to enter Iraq through Turkey. When Turkey denied permission for the plan to proceed, the 10th ended up in the Kuwaiti desert, awaiting further orders.
Prepared for everything from chemical and biological attack to mass U.S. casualties, the 21st CSH found that its biggest challenge at the outset was taking up the slack from devastated Iraqi hospitals. The primary role of the CSH is to treat American and coalition wounded, but according to Army policy, CSH units will provide emergency care to any Iraqi who is in immediate danger of losing life, limb, or eyesight—or who has been injured by American forces.
The program follows several trauma cases that call on all the expertise of the CSH staff, which includes some of the best ER surgeons in the world. The most heartrending patients are children. One eight-year-old girl, injured when a U.S. missile blew up an Iraqi tank, suffered complications during the two weeks she was trapped at home. In a heroic attempt to save her life, the 21st CSH doctors arrange to airlift her to a hospital in Michigan—but only if they can stabilize her condition in preparation for the flight. "I've got two little girls at home, and I see her and her parents and it breaks my heart," says anesthesiologist Maj. Christopher Niles, explaining the extraordinary measures being taken. "It's terrible. It takes a little extra motivation to try and do the right thing."