Over the past couple of years, I have been firmly embedded in some of the worst places on earth: In the middle of the northern mountains of Pakistan after the earthquake; on the eastern shores of Sri Lanka after a tsunami; and in Charity Hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Still, one of my most vivid memories was when I spent two months in the middle of the war in Iraq in the spring of 2003. With bullets whizzing around and shrapnel flying through the air, I always triple-checked my Kevlar vest and helmet anytime I might be in danger, which was pretty much all the time.
Having that equipment made me feel a little more comfortable in the midst of wartime dangers. So imagine my concern when I saw a young Marine corporal, Jesus Vidana, brought by chopper into the tent of the Devil Docs, a medical unit tending to injured soldiers, because his helmet failed to stop a bullet.
He had been shot in the head and shrapnel had sprayed throughout his brain. Twice pronounced dead, once in the field, once in the helicopter, he was in fact alive, but barely. Looking at his injuries, I could not believe he had been wearing his helmet.
Given my background as a trained neurosurgeon and Jesus' dire condition, I was asked to shift from reporting on events to participating. I performed an operation on Jesus that day, removing the shrapnel and the life-threatening blood collection that was placing pressure, too much pressure, on his brain.
In the middle of the desert, my next objective was to find something sterile to repair the outer layer of his brain. My only option was to open a sterile IV bag and flip it inside out. It worked. Jesus Vidana survived and is living today in southern California.
After the operation, I went and found Jesus' helmet to investigate what exactly had happened. Sure enough, there was a hole in the back of his helmet on the right side. Jesus had done everything right, but his equipment had failed him. Needless to say, it was unnerving for all of us as I showed that helmet to everyone in the unit.
For sure, designing protective gear is a difficult job. As with anything else, there are advantages and disadvantages to changing the equipment. Not only should it be protective, but it must be relatively light. Not only should it be safe, but it should be able to accommodate the unforgiving nature of the desert heat.
For Jesus, everything worked out in the end, but what about the thousands of other Marines still fighting today? There's a debate raging about the adequacy of their protective gear. I am curious to hear your thoughts.