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Trying to make calm from chaos at surgical hospital in Iraq

NAME: Mike Nace

RANK: Navy lieutenant commander

AGE: 42

HOMETOWN: Hemet, Calif.

JOB: Nurse


CAMP CHESTY, central Iraq—Lt. Cmdr. Mike Nace gets off the helicopter and faces the ambulances, holding up four fingers.

"Four injured?" the ambulance driver asks.

No, Nace gestures. "Four ambulances," he says.

Three of the injured walk down the helicopter ramp with their arms in slings. One man is limping so badly that another Marine has to help him to the ambulance.

Nace disappears into the helicopter and comes off with a Marine on a stretcher. The Marine is rushed to the Navy surgical hospital in the back of an ambulance. At the same time, another helicopter unloads a string of enemy prisoners of war.

Thirteen patients show up at once. The medics and doctors work quickly, trying to figure out who should be treated first. Two Marines lie side by side on stretchers. They punch hands, giving each other encouragement.

Nace stays with a Marine who was injured about 18 hours earlier in a suicide bombing in Baghdad. The major battles of this war appear over, and Nace believes the danger now will come from terrorist attacks.

"We had four or five Marines and eight to 10 civilians who had shrapnel injuries from a terrorist," Nace says. "They were getting ready to set up a defensive perimeter. A bunch of people were hollering and waving, happy to see the guys. Somebody broke through, and they said he had a bomb on his back, detonated it and took all these people out with the Marines."

Nace has been up all night, working on the injured at a trauma unit about 7 miles from Baghdad. It's about a 40-minute flight to this surgical hospital.

"Last night, because things were frantic, we actually filled the four beds we have for resuscitation and we had two more waiting to come in," Nace says. "We have two operating rooms, and we worked both."

A 4-year-old girl was injured in the bombing. She had a skull fracture, a stomach injury, part of her arm was gone and she was missing a finger.

"We are using stuff that isn't made for kids," Nace says. "We are supposed to be using it on adults. We are improvising and adapting for pediatrics."

Nace transfers the Marine to a doctor, while giving a quick summary: "He has shrapnel to the leg, shrapnel to the arm. We opened him up and found puncture wounds in his belly. We had to take out a piece of his belly. Had to take out a piece of his intestines. They packed him, but didn't close it, though. He had significant blood loss. We've been watching his vital signs and keeping him sedated."

Nace has been in the Navy almost 24 years and has worked his way up.

"They sent me back to do my undergrad and sent me back to do my master's in trauma critical care with an emphasis in emergency medicine," he says.

This is Nace's fifth deployment to another country. He was part of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and he was in Bosnia and Beirut, Lebanon.

"We are moving faster as far as the medical part," he says. "During Desert Storm, we set up right behind the breach. We were about 6 miles back. We saw 750 patients in five days, and we were a big group.

"In the last five days, we've seen 132 patients. Yesterday, we had 13 operating room cases."

And that's at a small trauma unit.

"We've seen a lot of kids," he says. "We didn't think we would see a lot of kids."

Nace has three children of his own. As much as he wants to see his family, he thinks he'll be in Iraq for a while.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): usiraq+nace