By Sarah L. Blum
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The first thing that hit me when I arrived in Vietnam was the incredible heat and the smells. I was one of a couple hundred nurses arriving at Bien Hoa airbase searching among the 200 identical looking olive drab duffle bags for mine, as the sweat penetrated my uniform, rolled down my face and into my eyes. After that ordeal I was taken on an army bus with heavy cross-cross metal grills over the windows, to the 90th replacement battalion. I learned that the window covering was to prevent grenades from coming through. For three days we learned how to receive and send mail, what the Vietnamese money was and how to get it and get paid. We also learned a bit about the culture and areas where we had hospitals. Finally we were all assigned to hospitals and sent on our way. I went to the 12th Evacuation Hospital at Cu Chi. The night before I left, I met my drill sergeant from basic training, who asked me where I would be sent. When I told him, his face drained of color and he said, “Get it changed. You don’t want to go there. That is the worst place to be; it is where all the fighting is and it is not safe.” I told him, “I can’t change it now because I switched with a young nurse who had the same MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). She was scared and crying because she did not want to go to Cu Chi. I had the 67th Evacuation Hospital at Qui Nhon and offered to switch with her, because I wanted to be where the action was. The chief nurse agreed because of the severe emotional distress of the other young nurse. I don’t care where I am stationed as long as I can help our soldiers.” He was not happy about it at all and told me to keep my head down and stay safe.
My footlocker and duffle bag were taken by truck and I was put on a Huey helicopter to go to the 12th Evacuation Hospital. My first helicopter ride was scary because they do not have doors. I felt very vulnerable sitting in a canvas seat in the wide open space while flying in a war zone, and if you think that was frightening the landing was worse. When they arrived at the hospital, the helicopter crew would not land the helicopter. They told me I had to jump out onto the helipad. The helicopter is very loud and it is hard to be heard over the sounds of the rotor blades. I kept pointing down with my arm and finger, “put this thing down” and they kept shaking their heads and saying, “jump.” They hovered the helicopter about six feet over the helipad but would not land it and I had to jump. I guess that was my initiation. Or was it? Next I was saluting our very strac executive officer to find out where to report. He looked starched and professional and did not like my answer to his question, “What is that?” pointing to my ukulele case. I brought a baritone ukulele with me so that I had some instrument to play while there. My answer was a joke to lighten up the situation, “It is a machine gun; I thought I might need it over here.” That was the wrong thing to say to him and for the next twenty minutes he yelled at me for being disrespectful to an officer and finally told me where to report.
Fast forward now to my year there, which included creating a space for me in the hooch; a bed, a closet I made from a large equipment box, my footlocker and some shelves I made from wood and masonite. I could not stand the smell of the sheets that the mama san’s washed, so I took some new green operating room sheets, used them all year and washed them myself in an extra large aluminum bowl for washing clothes. Once I completed my personal space I started working.
We had two Quonset huts for our operating rooms. The main one was called Arizona and in it we had five different partitioned areas that counted as a room. Each area had an operating room (OR) table, equipment for giving anesthesia, a large stainless steel table I would use for instruments and sterile supplies for each case, an over the table stand that we used during the operation to hold instruments and supplies like suture material and extra instruments. We had one shift only and that was from 9 AM until we were done with scheduled cases for the day and then all the cases generated by the war. We often worked around the clock, but the average was about 16 hours a day. I was on call four nights a week.
We had soldiers with wounds all over the bodies or only parts of their body. Often they lost arms, legs, eyes, or they had shrapnel that tore through major organs in their bodies, which we had to repair. I definitely saw the worst of war and what war does to the land and human beings on it. Yes we were targets and were mortared often. Fortunately I was never hit and the worst hit to our hospital occurred the month after I left. After I had been there about six months I had a major emotional experience. A young red headed soldier was hit by American artillery and had the lower half of his body blasted severely. From his hipbones down he was black, charred and bleeding. We had four surgeons look at him to decide what they could save and what they could do for him.
I was standing in his blood for hours as we worked on him and what was left at the end were some large skin flaps to cover the remainder of his pelvis. He was literally half a man. I was OK during the surgery because I learned to be numb to it all— but then on his day three, the day he came into the OR for the closure of his skin flaps, I snapped. He was at one end of the Quonset hut on a stretcher and I came in from the opposite end. As I walked toward him I saw the flat sheet covering the stretcher and half the length of it was flat because there was nothing there. Finally my eyes saw the bump that was his bandaged hips and then his torso covered with the sheet and finally his face and eyes. My eyes followed all that up to his face and when I saw his red hair and blue eyes something inside me snapped and I ran out the doors at his end. There were some assault helicopters flying overhead at that moment and I shouted as loudly as I could through my rage and tears at the choppers, “Kill, Kill, Kill—that is all you know how to do! I hate this war!” I have no memory of what I did or how long I was going around the hospital yelling at the sky but I ended up in front of my chief nurse telling her, “You have got to get me out of the OR I can’t take it anymore. Put me on the malaria ward or something.” She shook her head and said, I cannot do that; you just need a rest. Take a few days and go down to the beach at Vung Tau and get yourself together.”
I drank beer, ate pineapples, had great food and talked with the Aussie’s. They were the guys who ran the phones in Vietnam and they were my lifeline. I could talk to them late at night after working 16-18 hours and be able to relax and sleep. In Vung Tau, knowing I had to go back for more horrors of war, I put a strong wall around my heart to be able to do it. Once back home in order to heal, I had to take that wall down and it was not easy.
Sarah L. Blum ARNP
Dedicated to inspiring hope and positive change.