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An emotional roller coaster

After touring the combat hospitals of Iraq with Robert Bazell, cameraman Craig White, and soundperson Susan Becerra, I don't think I'm speaking out of turn to say that none us have ever before seen the amount of severe trauma we witnessed in our two week trip. Since returning back, the lasting impression for me is the somewhat surprising roller coaster of emotions felt on a daily basis. I'm not talking about the simple up and down reactions to each day's event, but a rather more forceful pulling and tearing of emotions to levels of extreme highs and extreme lows.

Two images have been seared into my mind:

The first is a beautiful little Iraqi girl who was rushed into the Baghdad emergency room our first few days into the tour. Robert will feature her in his story on Wednesday. The victim of a mortar attack, she looked like a rag doll, carried into the hospital with a mangled leg hanging off. Her face was eerily devoid of any emotion at all.

The little girl appeared to have very little chance of surviving, and though the hospital sprang into action, a feeling of gloom descended upon almost everyone. We followed her to the operating room, and watched as doctors amputated her left leg.  Hours later it become clear that the girl was going to survive. More and more hospital workers turned up to check on her condition. Grim faces in the hallways began looking hopeful. Later, a feeling of collective giddiness took hold of the ward. A tiny life was being saved. It's difficult to describe the precise moment when feelings of despair and bleakness morph into something close to euphoria.

The following day I was called down from a rooftop camera position by Maj. William White, head nurse of the Baghdad ER.  Usually a Zen-like force of calm and stability, he appeared slightly frantic, and motioned for me to come quickly. He put some surgical gloves on me, told me not get any blood on myself, and asked me to give him a hand moving a badly wounded Iraqi civilian from his gurney to a bed nearby. The wounded man's leg resembled the twisted truck of an old tree. His head trauma was so severe (there's no delicate way of putting this) that a good deal of its contents had spilled out onto the gurney. We slowly moved the man together, watching him expire. 

The moment, as always, was interrupted by the sounds of helicopter rotors overhead. More wounded were coming in. White rushed back inside. The entire experience lasted no more than three minutes. Running back up those stairs, I wondered how White and others could deal with the sheer volume of these experiences. I felt a bit like a tourist. If a single three minute experience could take such hold of me, what does a year feel like here? White works 12 hours a day, six days a week, for 12 months straight. "When it doesn't affect you anymore, it's time to get out of the business," he says. How many dead, dying and severely wounded will he come across in that time and how much can the human mind handle?

The combat hospitals around Iraq deal with a constant stream of severely wounded soldiers, civilians, children. Not the drip, drip, drip of a faulty faucet, but the constant flow of a tap left firmly on. It can seem endless. All the while, these professionals push on. The people we spoke to all seemed to have their own defense mechanisms firmly in place, tailored coping strategies for emotional survival. However, the drastic ups and downs were clear for everyone to see from day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour. I can only speak from my limited window of experience, but at times it resembled some sort of a bipolar existence. Moments of deep despair (a mass casualty incident involving 20-year-old Americans or an innocent mangled child) could be followed almost immediately by feelings of exhilaration and hope (the saving of that same child's life, for instance).

As you watch "Wounds of War" this week, spare a thought for these doctors, nurses, medics and Medevac pilots who day in and day out deal with a seemingly endless flow of wounded, and the roller coaster of emotions that comes with it. It's a white-knuckled ride that few, including those who spend a mere few weeks there, can ever really appreciate.

Above photo by NBC's Craig White.

Editor's note: If you missed part I in our "Wounds of War" series, click here to watch. Correspondent Robert Bazell also wrote today about head wounds in Iraq, the No. 1 injury of the war. Click here to read that.