by Daniel Petrie, Jr.
Third Network Draft - November 2010
Dramatic Pilot - 66 pages
"I'm never too tired for surgery. There's nothing that makes me feel more... Alive." - Rebecca
Combat Hospital was a Canadian medical drama that premiered in June 2011. In the US, it was broadcast by ABC. After one summer season of thirteen episodes, ABC announced they would not be airing a second season, and two months later the show was officially cancelled when their producers were unable to find another broadcast partner.
I don't believe I saw any episodes of Combat Hospital or was even aware of it back in 2011, but when I read the premise - doctors and nurses from around the world working at an allied military hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan - I was immediately intrigued. Like with Off The Map, I wanted to examine how the setting impacted the story.
Right off the bat, it seems the creators of Combat Hospital knew that the world would be foreign to their readers. Between the title page and the first actual page of the pilot script, two pages of diagrams were inserted. The first depicts the overall layout, including the locations of the runway, taxiway, huts where the personnel sleep, blast walls, bunker, and, of course, the main medical unit. The second picture takes us inside the medical unit itself, showing the locations of the operating rooms, ICUs, CT room, blood bank, and more. There's also a note that each small square on the picture represents an area of 6' x 6', and, in fact, this is what was most surprising to me. Quick math revealed the building to be 88 by 64 yards. The longer end of this is roughly the size of a New York City avenue, which is what really hit me. This place is huge. For some reason, I never expected it to be so big - especially as they are running out of beds in the pilot.
The pilot's protagonist is Major Rebecca Kincaid, a trauma specialist reporting for duty the first time. With her, and another new recruit, Bobby, we are introduced to the world. Incidentally, Rebecca's "old life" keeps encroaching. When we first meet her, she's attempting to take a pregnancy test (we, and she, don't discover whether or not she's actually pregnant until the end of the episode), and she has an ex-fiancé desperately trying to get in touch with her. When she discovers he's been emailing the base, the following exchange takes place:
Rebecca: If he does it again, please tell him to eat shit and die.
The Regimental Sergeant Major doesn't turn a hair.
RSM Sean Kelly: "Eat shit and die." Yes, ma'am.
The humorous exchange and others like it - for example, this cargo plane description: "They really pack 'em in: picture coach on the world's worst airline and take away the creature comforts." - help break the tension to give us a much needed break as the world we've been thrown into is intense and foreign. On top of the operations and doctor-speak, military jargon abounds.
When one patient is rolled in, the accompanying dialogue is, "Hot one, sir! EHVI with through and through GSW's right midline and LLQ." This is quickly followed up by, as a description for the reader, "In English, that's an Enemy High Value Individual with Gun Shot Wounds through his right chest and Left Lower Quadrant of his abdomen." On the same page, Rebecca questions what EHVI means, which ensures that the audience understands as well. To stress the point, the person who answers her adds, "He's Taliban."
Three things stood out when specifically looking at the impact on the setting. First, the doctors, even the new ones like Rebecca and Bobby, just kept operating through the explosions when the hospital was being attacked. Yet, at the same time, the hospital took precautions. Ballistic gear and helmets were placed over and on patients who couldn't be moved (although not over the surgeons, who needed to remain mobile) and everyone else crowded into the nearby bunker. Among them was a young Afghani boy, a patient who did not speak English. To distract him from the sounds of war, some of the soldiers took pictures of him with their cell phones. This was the second thing that caught my attention. While war is common here, smartphones are not. The implication of the scene is that the young boy had never seen a digital photograph before. Finally, a deadly snake crawls into an operating room, which an experienced military surgeon calmly shoots dead. The snake in an operating room, we are repeatedly assured, is not a common occurrence here, but its implication is that there is danger all around.
The doctors do lose a soldier during the pilot. Those surrounding the operating table bow their heads for a moment of silence when the time of death is called, and the flags at the base are lowered to half mast. As this is a hospital in a war zone, I was taken aback by the respect given to death. Here, the reality contrasted my expectations based on the setting. To my surprise, death was not treated as commonplace.