“Happy To Be of Use”

by Hayden Hollingsworth

In the spring of 2011 I wrote a column entitled, “How to Raise Money for a Good Cause.”  It was about the Roanoke Academy of Medicine Alliance Foundation fundraiser, the 13th annual The Book and Author Dinner.  Many have long been supporters of the evening at Hotel Roanoke and never have we been disappointed.  On April 27th this year’s event seems no less promising.  Visit ramabookandauthor@gmail.com  or call 540-581-2097 for information.

The emcee will be Andrew Gross, best-selling New York Times author.  He could fill the entire evening himself but he will be introducing three outstanding speakers: Steve Berry and Dorothea Benton Frank are, like Andrew Gross, NYT best sellers and sure to please.

Berry has published more books than I can count in the “Cotton Malone” series and has over 12 million copies sold in 40 languages and 51 countries.  Dorothea Benton Frank is a neighbor of ours.  Who has not been to the charming low country of South Carolina?  One of her more recent books, “Return to Sullivan’s Island,” captures the local flavor, complete with friendly ghosts in the ancestral house.

The third author, Dr. Chris Coppola, carries different freight for me.  He is not a NYT best-seller . . . but he will be.  I enjoy books written by physicians, so I keep my eye out for them.  His book, “Coppola¸” came to me in an unusual way as a gift from John Henretta, a vascular surgeon from Asheville, where he heard him speak.  I was so entranced with the book I called the publisher and later Dr. Coppola himself.

A career Air Force officer whose father is a gynecologist and mother is a teacher, he wrote this remarkable book about his two five-month tours as Air Force surgeon in Balad Air Base, Iraq.  He is a graduate of Brown University, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and took his surgical training at Yale.  How does such a person end up as the only pediatric surgeon in a war zone?

To answer that, it’s important to know more of his background.  The oldest of five children, he became at an early age an expert in changing diapers.  Whether that led him into pediatrics he did not say, but he became aware as young person he had been born into a large extended Italian family and he received great love and support . . . not to mention food . . . from them.  These gifts taught him the value of taking care of one another.

While at Brown he spent time in Spain which opened his eyes to a world view not commonly seen in his previous experience.  He came to realize that the things he had received required him to, in his words, give back.  With four younger siblings to follow him in education he sought a way to put himself through medical school and the Air Force provided such a mechanism.

For those who have accepted such a grant, there is a pay back, usually a year in active duty service for every year you have been trained, plus additional time in service when you have repaid the loan; thus, his career as Air Force pediatric surgeon.

There is much more to say, but the book, “Coppola,” is an outgrowth of letters to his wife, Meredith, during his two tours in Balad.  In addition to his service to the military wounded, be they friend or foe, his expertise became widely known.  Iraqi civilians, young and old, with grievous injuries, with undiagnosed illnesses, arrived at the Balad hospital with only a note pinned to their clothing.  It simply read, “Coppola.”  No one was turned away.

The letters to his wife, to his family were written, to use his words, “to squeeze the poison out” of his experiences there.  The letters became a blog, the blog became a book. When he fulfilled his military commitment, he did not leave his generosity behind.  The bulk of the profits are donated to Fisher House, a Ronald McDonald House type venture for families of military wounded. He has donated his surgical skills in Haiti on several occasions as well as Brazil.

I asked him to describe his life in five words.  Without hesitation, he said, “Happy to be of use.”  Just suppose the whole world felt that way!

Come meet this man, now a surgeon at the famed Geisinger Clinic, along with his colleague authors.  It will be a night you won’t forget.