CHH Medical Director Mark R. Prete, M.D., Takes Emergency Medical Skills To Iraq

The Charlotte Hungerford Hospital has dedicated a flag in its front lobby that was a gift from Mark Prete, M.D., the hospital’s Vice President of Medical Affairs and member of the emergency medicine department and Major in the U.S. Army Reserves and his company. In June, he returned from a three-month deployment to Mosul, Iraq with the 256th Combat Support Hospital (CSH). The flag flew over the base where the hospital was located.

Dr. Prete was one of two emergency medicine physicians deployed with the 256th Combat Support Hospital, along with two general surgeons, one orthopaedic surgeon, two nurse anesthesiologists and a radiologist. They functioned as a small emergency department, located in a brick and concrete building on the Army forward operating base with 6 emergency bays. There were also two operating rooms, an intensive care unit and a medical ward with 10 beds. Dr. Prete and his team treated U.S. soldiers, contractors, Iraqi coalition members and some Iraqi nationals.

“Deploying to a combat sector in support of operational military medicine can be difficult, but it keeps my life in perspective,” said Dr. Prete. “Everything else is not as difficult as it seems to be.”

One might say there is plenty to be concerned about in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul with its 1.2 million inhabitants. Although violence has fallen in Iraq since the height of sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007, bombings and attacks remain a daily occurrence. Suicide bombers and roadside bombs targeted at Iraqi army patrols are still wounding and killing civilians and soldiers.

“Although we never felt in imminent danger, we experienced random mortar and rocket fire fairly frequently,” said Dr. Prete. “You would wake up in the middle of the night to a radar warning of indirect fire. A physician was killed two years ago when a random rocket hit our housing, which is located next to the hospital. Although there is no offensive operational posture, everyone is exposed to the dangers. We were not allowed to leave the perimeter of the base because it is so dangerous.”

Between 5,000 and 6,000 troops from the First Calvary out of Fort Hood—the remnants of the northern perimeter forces—are stationed on the base as well as members special forces as members of the state department. Dr. Prete and his team treated U.S. soldiers, contractors, Iraqi coalition members and some Iraqi nationals.

“We only treated Iraqi nationals in emergency situations, and the decision to allow them into the hospital was made by security,” Dr. Prete said. “In this type of situation, you are always taking care of people you don’t know…Iraqi soldiers, you don’t know them. There are incidents that happen. You really depend on the screening and security measures in place to make sure you are safe.”

He noted the hospital was very well equipped for the most part, even housing one of the only two CT scanners in Iraq.

“You couldn’t really tell the difference,” said Dr. Prete. “As physicians we know how to perform medicine. It is just a matter of applying our skills in a different environment.”

However, Dr. Prete pointed to one notable distinction between working at community hospital and on a military base. In Mosul, “we all carried military weapons wherever we went,” he said. “Physicians carry weapons to defend themselves, not for any other reason.”

Another difference is the noise level. “The building was adjacent to the runway and the aviation unit, so there was nonstop noise,” he said. “There were helicopters everywhere.”

Dr. Prete was on also active duty during the 1990s in the first Gulf war, with experience in supporting operations as far back as Panama. His three-month deployment to Iraq leaves him with the memories of those with whom he worked in the Army base emergency department.

“You are there for the people next to you and the people for whom you are caring,” said Dr. Prete. “You become really close. As physicians, we are working together, meeting together. We become very close to the nursing and medic staff. When you live with people for 90 days, you remember those people, and you stay in touch.” Dr. Prete is glad to back on United States soil—back with his family and his position at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital.

“Dan McIntyre, president and CEO of the hospital, and the hospital board were very supportive of my deployment,” he said.” It wasn’t easy on them having me gone, either, and I appreciate that.”

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Charlotte Hungerford Hospital is a 109 bed, general acute care hospital located in Torrington, Connecticut, that serves as a regional health care resource for 100,000 residents of Litchfield County and Northwest Connecticut. CHH offers personalized attention from an expert team of caregivers and physicians that utilize advanced technology and clinical partnerships in a convenient, safe and comfortable patient environment. One Thousand Caregivers, One Job, Your Health.

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