© Constance J. Moore
Colonel, ANC (Retired), ANCA Historian
At the beginning of the Vietnam War, Army nurse anesthetists worked as advisors and as members of K teams “assigned to fixed facilities and rotated to other hospitals according to casualty needs.” After the military buildup in 1965, the bulk of the anesthesia services was provided by anesthetists, at a ratio of three anesthetists to one anesthesiologist.1
Their work was critical to the health of the force. In as little as one hour, injured service men were evacuated by helicopter moments for definitive surgical care. The operating rooms were the hearts of the Army hospitals in this conflict, constantly busy with military casualties or civilian humanitarian cases.
The anesthetists were expected to be proficient and adaptable as soon as they arrived at their duty stations. CPT Leo Le Bel remembered, “I arrived at the 24th Evac Hospital in Long Binh just as the 1968 Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong was beginning. I was received by ... the chief nurse anesthetist.... [H]er greeting to me was, ‘Welcome to the 24th. Here’s the pentothal, there’s the patient. Call me if you need anything.’ I then provided anesthesia for combat casualties for the next 19 hours.” This nonstop pace continued throughout his entire tour. Another nurse anesthetist related how busy the operating room was, “Our work days and nights were assigned on a rotating basis but, as there was no place to go, we were always available to work. So often during large military operations ... we were all busy.”2
CPT Frank Maziarski described the primitive work situation that confronted him, “We had very basic anesthesia apparatus and next to no monitoring equipment. We did not have ECG monitors or ventilators in the OR. We used BP cuffs and precordial stethoscopes as the primary monitors. The operating rooms were very basic with OR tables and lighting of the time period. Cauteries were an electrical hazard, so explosive agents had to be avoided. The surgical instrument sets were basic and used for a wide variety of cases.”3
Army anesthetists dealt with complicated cases in this austere environment. “The wounds were usually multiple and devastating, the result of mine, high-velocity missile, and booby trap injuries. Casualties who would not have survived in previous wars were salvaged here.” CPT Theodore Kehn described how “one patient ... who was shot in the heart ... received 50 units of blood. We ... had blood running in all four extremities.”4
Kehn saw different types of work assignments. He set up the anesthesia department for the 12th Evacuation hospital in Cu Chi. Transferring to the 101st as chief anesthetist for 1st Brigade, he provided relief services at several hospitals so other anesthesia personnel could get some down time. He transported patients from forward units to Saigon and volunteered to provide humanitarian services to civilians. Dusting off his soldier skills, he served as door gunner on helicopters for twelve dangerous missions.5 He did what was needed to be done.
At the end of the war in 1975, the healthcare professionals came home with the rest of the military. Condon-Rall eloquently summarized their important roles: “The Vietnam War, more than any previous conflict, gave a new face and a new character to anesthesia providers. [Army nurse anesthetists] played a pivotal role in preserving life before, during, and after surgery, and redefining the meaning of intensive care.”6
1 Ferguson, What Can I Do Now? Nursing (New York: Ferguson Publishing Company, 2007), 54; Mary Ellen Condon-Rall, “A Brief History of military Anesthesia,” in Russ Zajtchuk and, Christopher Grande, eds., Anesthesia and Perioperative Care of the Combat Casualty (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2000), 885.
2 Theodore Kehn, “Voices of Vietnam: Theodore Kehn,” AANA, accessed September 25, 2016, http://www.aana.com/aboutus/inservicesofourcountry/vietnamvoices/Pages/Voices-of-Vietnam-Theodore-Kehn.aspx
3 Cathryn Hodson, “The Hunt for 1LT Kenneth R. Shoemaker Jr, CRNA,” 441.
4 Mary Ellen Condon-Rall, “A Brief History of Military Anesthesia,” 885.
5 Theodore Kehn, “Voices of Vietnam: Theodore Kehn,” AANA, accessed September 25, 2016, http://www.aana.com/aboutus/inservicesofourcountry/vietnamvoices/Pages/Voices-of-Vietnam-Theodore-Kehn.aspx
6 Mary Ellen Condon-Rall, “A Brief History of Military Anesthesia,” 892.