Trauma Surgeon Uses Warzone Skills in ER at Home

Dr. Peter Rhee, who helped save Gabby Giffords, honed his surgical skills serving in Iraq.
7:05 | 06/14/14

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Transcript for Trauma Surgeon Uses Warzone Skills in ER at Home
Thing your job is stressful? For the trauma surgeon you are about to meet, some times every day, every hour can be life and death. He is applying lessons he learned at war, bringing them home. We followed him through a nerve-racking 24-hour shift. Here is ABC's David Wright. Reporter: It is 6:00 A.M. And a trauma red is about to come through the door. You have no idea -- Red means just what you think. The patient's life is in immediate danger, minutes will make all the difference. Laceration, 7 -- Dr. Peter rhee leads the trauma team. The injury, a deep slash in the patient's arm. Rhee's first priority to stop the bleeding. The nurses rush to get more blood. Dr. Rhee calmly sutures the wound. By 6:30, 30 minutes later, the patient is out of danger. So how is he looking? He looks okay. He looks fine. He came with a tourniquet, he had a cut in the arm. We stopped the bleeding. And sewing it up there. Reporter: One of the nation's top trauma surgeons, rhee invited "Nightline" to follow along for a 24-hour shift at the trauma center at the university Arizona medical center. What is this here? A trauma bay. We have seven bays. A luxury. A lot of places have one or two. Reporter: Inside his locker, a hint of what's to come. You didn't have to be as fastidious about cleaning it when it is red. A shift is more a marathon than a sprint. 8:00 A.M., in the middle of the first surgery of the day. A general case, repairing a hernia. Next. Reporter: Then the daily handoff meeting with the trauma team from the previous night. You have a -- Reporter: On round with his team, he gets called to another surgical case. Keep it up. Reporter: He is scrubbing in for the second time. I am on trauma call. On trauma twice this week. I will do 96 hours by tomorrow. Maybe. I am going golfing. Reporter: While he is in there he gets updates on two trauma case that have come in since the morning. I see traumas. Rhee began his medical career in the Navy, one of seven trauma surgeons. A stunning number when you think about it. When you joined, it was peacetime. It was peacetime. Reporter: When 9/11 hit and the country want to war, many military doctors had never seen a gunshot wound. Rhee who was working at a trauma unit in Los Angeles ran a special program to bring military doctors up to speed. Shot in the neck. Comes out his cheek. Reporter: Exposing them to the types of injuries they would encounter in Afghanistan and later Iraq. The message that we always learned in military medicine is the only winner in war is medicine. One of the most -- what are the most important innovations, medically that have come out of Iraq and Afghanistan? Oh, I think there has been a lot. The way we treat and resuscitate a bleeding patient. Another difference in our war was the use of tourniquets. Reporter: Even for this seasoned veteran, some of the lessons came at a terrible cost. We were in Iraq, when the first six patients that came in were Marines, six, six Marines, 12 legs, and every one of those guys had a tourniquet on at the thigh. So, you know, it was harder -- It's okay. It's okay. Reporter: That was 10 years ago. But it still gets to him. One out of 12, not a good number. Saved one leg out of 12 legs. Six guys. This was a roadside bomb. This was a roadside bochlt. The war taught surgeons to intervene even in the worst of cases. Wound that might well have been considered fatal before. The survival rate from being shot in the brain was only about 10%. But now in, at least in our institution, we are up to 46%. The war that we had in Iraq showed us that when we operate more often on these people shot in the brain the survival rate is higher. Reporter: No better example than that than what unfolded at this trauma center three years ago. We continue to follow breaking news out of Arizona. On a sunny Saturday morning a lone gunman stopped ate congress on your corner, injuring people and Gabrielle giffords was shot in the head. Neurosurgeons have finished operating on her. I can tell you at the current time -- Reporter: As trauma chief rhee not only oversaw her care, he became the voice of hope. You were emphatic from the beginning she was not going to die. There was no doubt in my mind at that time she wasn't going to die. No. Reporter: You could tell? I could tell. I do this for a living. Reporter: Rhee writes about that case and others in a new memoir "Trauma red." It is now halfway through rhee's Friday night shift. Rush hour is under way. A child nearly drowns. Falls and accidents lead to broken arms and legs. Two men arrive with stab wounds. And through the chaos, then, 3:00 A.M. A patient with a possible severed artery in the arm. Have you got blood? Need five minutes. Control the bleeding with a tourniquet. Yeah. Reporter: Within minutes. Rhee has the the patient on the way to the or. And on the table the bleeding is quickly brought under control. I had one of the rare jobs where I get paid to come here and take care of people, whether you in an unfortunate accident or your wife that accidentally went through the glass. It doesn't matter if you are hurt I am there to help you. Reporter: Bringing a lifetime of experience to the battlefield back home. I'm David Wright for "Nightline" in Tucson. Dr. Rhee's book "Trauma red" is on sale now.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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