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Gupta: Saving lives on the front lines

By Sanjay Gupta
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- I remember the day well. It was in April of 2003. A 23-year-old Marine, Jesus Vidana, suddenly fell to the ground, his helmet and head bloodied by a sniper's bullet.

He was twice pronounced dead in the field -- once immediately at the scene and then again on a follow-up examination. But, deep inside his chest, his heart was still faintly beating -- so weakly that he didn't even have a pulse.

No one knew it at the time, but Vidana was about to benefit from one of the greatest medical advances in medical and military history.

Jesus was brought to a forward resuscitative surgical suite or FRSS. It is a tent in the desert, but it is the most sophisticated tent you have ever seen. It can be broken down and set up in one hour, yet it contains sterile instruments, anesthesia machines, an operating table, lab analysis equipment, an ultrasound machine, gowns, drapes and a ventilator.

All of it travels just behind the front-line troops. There are surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses and hard-working health care workers. Collectively, they are known as "Devil Docs," and I had the privilege of being embedded with them in the spring of 2003.

The idea for this emergency medical suite belonged to Dr. H.R. Bohman. He is a bullish, gruff career military surgeon who has boundless energy and expects the same from his colleagues. While standing in the blowing desert sand of northern Kuwait, he outlined his vision for me.

"In previous wars, it took too long to get the critically injured to medical care," he told me. "It's called the 'golden hour' and it is the window of time to treat trauma."

If you wait longer than that, death rates start to soar. "The best way to improve the odds? Take a gamble and place some of the most precious commodities of a war, such as doctors and medical equipment, right behind the front lines."

That way, as soon as someone is wounded, he or she gets medical care. Remarkably, sometimes the wait is just minutes before doctors are evaluating and treating the wounded.

For Bohman, Vidana and countless military personnel, the gamble paid off. Compared to the Vietnam War, where most American deaths occurred before the wounded ever made it to a hospital, the number of deaths during Operation Iraqi Freedom dropped dramatically. In short, care was being given more quickly and it was making a difference.

Jesus Vidana was still alive, but dying, in the middle of an FRSS just outside Baghdad when a team of heroic doctors and nurses descended on him. Quickly, a breathing tube was placed in him, and he was given back some of the precious blood that was now soaking the sand where he had been shot.

As a neurosurgeon, I was asked to step back from my journalist's role to look at his gunshot wound to the head. Shortly thereafter, I was removing a bullet from his brain. Within an hour, Jesus had been treated, operated on and was recovering just outside the operating room.

In all the years I have worked in hospitals, I have never seen resources mobilized so quickly and health care workers move with such purpose. And, remember, it was a tent in the middle of the desert by the dark of night in the most dangerous place on Earth.

I wouldn't be telling you this story if Jesus hadn't survived and done well.

He is a handsome young man who is considering a career in physical therapy and still trying to reconcile his brush with death. I visited him last year in Southern California and his mother slowly walked over to me and took my hands and said simply, "Thank you."

I still remember looking over at my producer Stephanie Smith and watching her begin to cry, which of course made me cry as well. This story, though, is more than a story about one Marine who lived, when so many thought he would die. It is about the remarkable technology and brilliant thinking that has brought the wounded of this war to doctors and nurses faster than ever before. This is a story about brave men and women who risk their lives every day so they might save others.


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CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who is also a neurosurgeon, performs surgery on another patient in Iraq.

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