Wounded Warrior — Not!

Living downtown in Saigon, actually, in Saigon’s Cho Lon Chinatown suburb, I was not close to the hospital on Tan Son Nhut (TSN) Air Base.  TSN, one of the largest US Air Force (USAF) installations in the word, had the 3rd Field Hospital, but was a long way from where I lived.  Thankfully, I never needed that facility.

What I did need – twice – was a clinic with a doctor.  Fortunately, one was just up the street from my bachelor enlisted quarters (BEQ) in the St George Hotel.  If I went straight out the front door of the hotel and kept walking, what, maybe a hundred yards, I’d run smack dab into Dong Khanh Street.  Then, just hang a right and keep going east until I entered Saigon and the street name changed to Tran Hung Dao.

It was there, on the south side of Tran Hung Dao, the US Army had placed the 218th Medical Dispensary to handle non-emergency outpatient cases for people assigned to Saigon, but living off TSN and other military installations.  I first went there when I thought I was going deaf.  That was a real problem for someone who talks as much as I and for anyone who worked as a language teacher.  Over a period of many days the world around me grew quieter and the sounds I did hear seemed to withdraw into a canister of some sort.  It sure wasn’t from the sound of cannon fire, in-bound rocket explosions, or even a barrage of small arms fire.  Nope, I was in Saigon, teaching English and living in a hotel.  Life was pretty darn good, but I was losing the ability to participate in it.

I’d been reluctant to go the the 218th because I came from a family that didn’t run to doctors just because a hangnail developed or I had a cramp in my back.  Nope, clinics were where sick people went and they were full of those.  The time had come, though, to get my cheeks in there before whatever problem that was taking over my skull resulted in a permanently silent world.

Nice place.  Clean.  Bright.  Organized.  Not too busy in the morning after treating the lineup of guys in there to address their venereal disease symptoms or to have that last check of that same old problem before heading home.

Within minutes of checking in a medic had me in an examination room and was poking around my ears, nose, and throat.  I couldn’t hear what he was asking so he’d write out questions and I’d shout out answers.  Yeah, that’s almost how it worked.  After five minutes he jotted a note telling me to just sit tight.

Minutes later he walked back in with a stainless steel kidney shaped tray about a foot long and the largest darn stainless steel syringe-looking thing I’d ever seen.  It must have been an inch in diameter and eight inches long.  What kind of shot was I going to get for whatever illness I had?

He then walked over to a plastic jug of potable drinking water and filled it with some sort of powder from another plastic container.  After shaking it up a bit, he poured the mixture into another stainless steel pot and put it on an electric hotplate for a few minutes.  Warm, but not hot.  Well, that was good.  At least he planned to wash up real well before he did anything to me.  But, what was so serious as to require such cleanliness, besides just good medical practice?

After a very short time, he stuck the point of that syringe into the pot of by-now lukewarm water and loaded it up.  What?  We weren’t writing and reading notes because his hands were wet.  He stuck that kidney shaped pan under my shoulder, put my arm on it, and told me to hold there.  I ain’ no dummy; I kept it right where he told me!

He then proceeded to jam that syringe in my ear opening and blast about — seemingly -– a quart of warm medicated water into my ear.  I thought he’d never stop.  I got worried after just a few seconds because he wasn’t slowing down.  That syringe held a helluva lot of fluid and it was all headed right inside my head.  Yeah, I know, there was lot of open space in there to hold it, but, hey, it still wasn’t a vat.  Then, he loaded up after just a moment and did it all over again.

Immediately, it felt like chunks of my ear, brain or skull had broken off in and were being flushed right out of by head.  A third insertion with that syringe.  This time, I could actually hear him taking talking to me about it.

A miracle.  I wouldn’t have to learn to read lips.  I wouldn’t have to shout my communications.  I wasn’t going to die from some sort of cranial infection.  My darn ear had been full of many months of Saigon dust and Rod ear wax.  Hey, those ears come in pairs so he cleaned out my other one too.  I could hear again.  The 218th had made a friend.

So I returned the next week!  You gotta be careful about befriending people; sometimes they won’t go away.

This time it was to check out some bumps on my left wrist and right forearm.  Jungle crud?  No way, city boy here.  Leprosy?  Yeah, I may have hung out with the wrong crowd, but, come on!  Skin cancer?  Who’d heard of that then?  Well, better get it taken care of before it grows and overtakes both arms.  These guys had done a pretty good job on me with my stuffed ears, so maybe this would be a simple matter of some iodine and Band-Aids.

This time it was a doctor who saw me.  I didn’t know if that was a dangerous sign or just my turn.  In any case, she got out a big flashlight and round magnifying glass then started to examine every inch of both arms and where they’d touched my torso hanging by my sides.  What the …?

“We can take care of that or you can just wait.”  Take care of what?” he responded.  “You’ve got some warts there.  They probably won’t be a problem, but you may want to get rid of them now.”  “Okay,” said the Saigon English teacher.

What the hell!  A little dry ice and Freezone and I’m outta there, right?  Wrong!  “A little procedure” in medical terms spans a wide spectrum of activities I was only starting to learn and have learned about even more over the years.  Naïvely, I gave it a thumbs up so she took me to the dispensary’s operating room.  Really!

Got me to hop up on and lay down on the operating table after taking off my fatigue shirt.  In came two guys to assist with a couple of syringes and a long cantilevered devise that looked like the apparatus a dentist uses to drill and polish teeth.  Then needles.  They sure were not there to dab on a bit of Freezone, that was for sure.

Too inexperienced and shocked to say anything, I just laid there while one of the assistants set up the equipment next to the table and the other one loaded the syringes from two vials.  This was starting to get serious and I had to head back to the Capital Hotel BEQ to catch the bus to head out to school for my afternoon shift.

“This is going to sting just a little,” the syringe-bearing assistant informed me about a nano second before plunging it in my right inner forearm.  “And now for the wrist,” he quickly said as he picked up the other syringe and moved to the left side of the table.  Stuck that sucker right in there!

Hey, why don’t doctors and more dentists use that practice carried out by some dentists whereby they put a little numbing agent on the skin at the point they’re going to insert the needle of a syringe?  It works like Oragel we can all buy at a grocery store.  This way we cannot even feel that needle at all!  A tube of Oragel at the wholesale level surely can’t cost that much; it’d go a long way and sure would change the “sting just a little” experience.

Anyway, my arm and wrist soon went numb as tested by the assistant’s stabbing me with a sharp steel probe.  No blood, no wince:  proceed!  Proceed she did!  “Please look the other way,” the doctor encouraged.  Glad to do so.  My head flipped to the left as one assistant glommed onto my right arm and she grabbed the business end of that contraption now hanging over the table and me.

Within seconds I heard a popping sound like an electrical short circuit and I stared to smell something like burning electoral wiring.  That was me!  On fire!   Well, sort of.  The doctor was using an electric probe to cauterize the warts on my arm.  “This one is deeper than I thought,” she stated to herself, but clearly including her two assistants.  That was the signal for the second one to grab onto my arm — just in case!

It was like in the mid-‘50s submarine movie (either Run Silent, Run Deep or The Enemy Below):  dive, dive, dive!  That doctor must have gone in three eighths of an inch.  Now, that may not seem like much until you took a look at my wimpy forearms.  I never heard her give the “surface” signal, but it at some point she moved to my left wrist.  She had two areas to work on there.

She got ‘em all.  No stiches; just let ‘em heal from the inside out to ensure no cysts or cavities develop later beneath an overgrowth of new skin.  She put some sort of antiseptic in and around the gaping (yes, gaping) caverns she’d hollowed out, and slapped some big cloth bandages over the tops.

This was not at all what I’d expected after my first and easy procedure the preceding week.  Yes, all three of these medical folks knew what they were doing, did it quickly, and truth be told, practically painlessly.  I even got some pictures Tom took for me laid out on my bed in the hotel.

So, those were my scrapes with medics during the Viet Nam War.  Yeah, not the stuff of We Were Soldiers Once .. and Young.  Thank goodness!

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