Desperate situations call for desperate measures. Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN knew that exactly when he was asked to perform an operation on Sergeant Jesus Vidaña, whose head was hit by an enemy bullet while they were in the middle of a firefight in the desert.
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Sergeant Jesus Vidaña, a radio operator of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, entered Bhagad with his troops in April of 2003. They were part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and were encamped beside the Tigris River that night, waiting to cross over into Baghdad, a the city in flames. The plan was for the Fox Company to enter Iraq’s capital the next day and then on to the Iraqi Ministry of Intelligence. The main group stayed on the soccer field while the remaining others divided themselves into three platoons of 40 men each, entering the city from different directions.
When they entered the city, they understood that the capital was far from being safe. Sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades were zooming all around them like bees on steroids. Not exactly a warm and friendly welcome for the Marines coming there to liberate the country from a tyrant like Saddam. Not only that, but the rebels would also pull over civilian cars and would force the poor drivers to speed toward the American forces at gunpoint, so the soldiers did not have much choice but to shoot both the hostage-taker and the hapless civilian.
Pronounced Dead Twice
Sergeant Vidaña was working his radio amidst all the madness and was relaying orders from his company commander when, in one of the buildings behind him, an enemy sniper lurking in the dark fired and hit him straight through the right side of his helmet and into his skull. He went silent and immediately fell.
Navy Corpsman George Rosado, a medical specialist who had undergone a ten-month training program at Camp Pendleton and was also Vidaña’s friend, couldn’t do anything but pronounce him dead seeing the horrible wound to his head. They were waiting for a truck to transport Vidaña’s body away when he checked a second time and discovered he still had a pulse, a faint one. He was rushed back to the medical tents called “Forward Resuscitative Surgical Suites” (FRSS), where he was pronounced dead the second time.
Operating In Iraq
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, was nearby and working with “Devil Docs,” a team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and others who operate out of FRSS. Dr. Gupta was a member of the staff and faculty of the Department of Neurosurgery at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta where he routinely works in the operating room as associate chief of Neurosurgery. The military didn’t send many brain surgeons to the front-line FRSS units, so the Marines turned to Dr. Gupta regarding Vidaña’s situation in a frantic attempt to save him. He was willing to operate the injured marine’s skull without hesitation, but there was one major problem: they didn’t have the necessary medical equipment to open skulls.
The resourceful doctor had an idea. He borrowed a Black and Decker power drill from the Marines and used that to open Vidaña’s skull. After one hour, he successfully took out the bullet from the marine’s brain, ready for his recovery journey.
In a CNN post on May 22, 2007, written by Dr. Gupta himself, he said:
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.
Yes, Vidaña survived with nothing but a slight limp and weakness on his left hand. Physically, at least. In a CNN video ten years after the incident, Dr. Gupta visited Vidaña to reconnect and revisit what happened. He revealed that he was suffering from major fatigue, depression, and seizures that sometimes he wished he didn’t live. Fortunately, that changed later on and things got better for him.
Here’s their reunion: