A Fighting Chance

Scott Pelley On Combat Medicine And The Battle To Save Lives

This segment was originally broadcast on Oct. 29, 2006. It was updated on June 28, 2007.

Twenty-first century science and old fashioned guts are revolutionizing combat medicine for our troops. In Iraq, the medical units made famous by "MASH" have been retired in favor of new combat hospitals set up in the midst of the action.

One thing that hasn't changed though is the courage of the medics, doctors and nurses who are saving lives like never before. Last year, 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley went to see the action up-close. The team came across two wounded Americans, Marine Corporals Kenny Lyon and Brad Fulks.

You wouldn't have expected either to have survived what happened to them. Their families agreed to let 60 Minutes tell the story of how today's combat medicine gave both men a fighting chance.

Kenny Lyon, from Maryland, was one gifted mechanic. He was outside, trying to fix his broken down armored vehicle, when a mortar exploded. By the time he reached the hospital, half his blood was gone already.

His pressure was critically low and his life was slipping away though three lacerated arteries and too many wounds to count.

Shrapnel had torn into his head, neck, both legs, and both arms. His left foot was turning white because there was no circulation.

"It's a battle, y'know. Sometimes people are fighting to die on the table desperately," says Paulette Schank, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve. Back in the states, she's a nurse-anesthetist in a hospital near Philadelphia.

"Did you say that some people come in fighting to die?" Pelley asks Schank.

"Meaning their body is going further and further down the wrong direction," she explains. "They need us to be able to resuscitate them so we can stop that negative spiral downward so that we go back to the spiral of life."

Schank supervised the operating rooms of the Air Force theater hospital. This is the war's busiest trauma center, an encampment of 32 tents on the Balad Air Base north of Baghdad.

The 332nd Expeditionary Group has 400 staff and more than 300 trauma patients a month. To be close to the patients, the hospital is close to the battle. In the background, the sound of incoming helicopters with wounded soldiers onboard beats against the tent canvas like an alarm.

Asked whether she feels a sense of dread about what she is going to face once the helicopter lands, Schank says, "I think of it more — it's the next challenge that's coming though the door. To ward off that ugly death man who wants to take away your person and it's your job to make sure he's not successful today."

The day Kenny Lyon was wounded another Marine, Brad Fulks, was hit by a roadside bomb. Fulks is from West Virginia, a two-time state boxing champion suddenly in the fight of his life the day before his 23rd birthday.

Cpl. Fulks made it to the Army's 10th combat support hospital in Baghdad.

Lieutenant Colonel Warren Dorlac flew in with a team just for Fulks. Dr. Dorlac is chief of trauma at the giant American Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany. He's one of the military's top doctors. He came himself because of Fulks' condition. Fulks lost a lung, his kidneys are failing, and half is body is burned.

"I think his overall prognosis, just from his burn alone, is actually very good," Dorlac says, even though Fulks was burned extensively. "The problem with this patient is that he has a number of other severe injuries—the biggest being the problem with his one lung."

As sick as Cpl. Fulks is, Dorlac is moving him to Germany. The life support gear the medical staff uses is so advanced, some of it isn't available in the United States yet. And at the same time Fulks is flying to Germany, special medical teams from Texas and Maryland are flying to Germany to meet him.

"At what point do you say to yourself, 'We can't save this life'?" Pelley asks Dr. Dorlac.

"You know, we don't make that decision. We go full court press on everybody," he explains.