by Mary Sue Helstern Rosenberger,
Việt Nam Christian Service volunteer via Church World Service, 1966-1967
Clearest and dearest of my memories of Việt Nam 50 years on are of people, for it is they who broadened my world, deepened my compassion, and changed the direction of my life. Below are four brief stories of patients, and one of a traffic accident. These stories and many others, are told in my book, Harmless as Doves: Witnessing for Peace in Việt Nam, which recounts my 18 months working as a nurse at the Việt Nam Christian Service (VNCS)-supported clinic in Nha Trang.
Several babies from a nearby fishing village were admitted to our hospital suffering a serious but unknown disease. They had high fevers, malnutrition, and weakness. Several died soon after they arrived. We were not able to start an IV in the veins of any of their tiny feet. We decided we needed to insert a feeding tube through the nose of one, and it seemed to help him gain strength.
A few days later, when I tried to give him a feeding through the tube, I discovered the tube was clogged. Nothing I tried opened the tube. My only choice was to pull it out, and I could hardly believe my eyes when I did. The lower opening of the tube, where the nutritional fluid should have been entering the baby’s stomach, was jammed close by a round worm, fatter than the tube and as long as the baby! The worm was still alive, wriggling and writhing, trying to get free of the tube it was stuck in. As I went to dispose of the worm, I remember thinking, “Well, we’ve solved one of this baby’s health problems.”
That baby and several others lived. A few weeks later, their village thanked us with a huge tray of live edible sea creatures from the previous night’s catch, including clams, crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and fish. We ate well that week!
Friends and neighbors brought in a boy of about eight or 10 years of age who had fallen and broken both thigh bones. His strong young thigh muscles had pulled the ends of the broken bones far out of healthy alignment. We needed traction to pull them back into their proper place, but we didn’t have the necessary medical equipment. What to do? We made our own traction arrangement with surgical boots, adhesive tape, and very strong string. We dug up a pile of bricks out of the back walk between the hospital and the doctor’s house and used them to raise the foot of the bed. Then we securely fastened another pile of bricks suspended below each of his feet and hanging over the foot of the bed to provide weight to straighten each leg.
Our makeshift traction must have worked. About two weeks later, I arrived at work at 8:00am to find his bed empty except for several neat piles of bricks
A young teenage girl was fixing the rice for her family’s supper when the front of her blouse caught fire. She dropped down to the dirt floor of the kitchen and rolled to put out the flames. Neighbors brought her to our hospital and I admitted her directly to the shower. Her burn was severe, second and third degree from waist to neck on her chest and upper arms. Several times a day we attempted to clean and debride the burn with wet to dry saline soaks. It was a painful process; she and I were both in tears when the treatment finished.
Despite giving her some of our limited supply of antibiotics, we began to see signs of infection. About three weeks after she came to us, we arrived at work in the morning to find her bed empty. No doubt her family had taken her home to die.
A young mother of several small children came to our outpatient clinic one morning, patiently waiting her turn. The clinic nurse discovered she had been in severe abdominal pain “for a long time.” The doctor’s exam revealed several large masses in her abdomen, probably cancer of uterus or ovaries. We admitted her to the hospital and tried to control her pain with our limited supply of pain medication, but her loud cries of pain and fear drove her family from her bedside and kept the whole ward in an uproar.
In desperation, I decided to try something different than just pain meds. Several times each day I would sit at her bedside with her. Her cries for pain meds gradually decreased.
One day, as I rose to leave her bedside, she asked me to pray for her. I smiled and said, “Even God can’t understand when I speak Vietnamese.”
She replied innocently, “God understands English, doesn’t he?”
I prayed for her, this time out loud, in English. A week or two later she died peacefully, surrounded by her family.
I was on my way to town on our unit’s Honda 50 in heavy traffic. Bicycles, motor bikes, small overcrowded buses, and horse-drawn carts were everywhere. Somewhere behind me I could hear the almost constant sound of the horn of a military jeep. Almost at once, that jeep was beside me, much too close and driving too fast. That’s all I remember until I woke up lying on the operating table in the surgery room of our little hospital!
While our doctor finished sewing up a gash around my left eye, our Vietnamese nurses told me the rest of the story. Apparently the jeep bumped my Honda bike enough to throw me off balance, and I fell to the street in the midst of that traffic and was knocked unconscious. Several Vietnamese women who lived beside the highway saw what had happened and rushed out of their homes to protect me from further injury in that dense traffic. A Tin Lành (Protestant Christian) pastor friend happened to pass that way and stopped to see what was causing the traffic jam. He immediately recognized me, and he and the women somehow lifted me into the back of his car.
He quickly drove me to our little hospital where our staff set about treating my injuries. I never learned the names of those ladies who protected me on the highway that day but I am convinced they saved my life.
“...Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God...”
Peacemakers...peacemakers...Việt Nam’s number one need.
God, who are the peacemakers, anyway?
Not just here in Việt Nam but everywhere in the world:
who are really the peacemakers?
Are they the protest marchers with their specific but idealistic "answers"?
Are they the soldiers who risk their necks
in the line of duty to secure peace, or at least pacification,
for a few more people for a few more days?
Are they the legislators who hold the power to negotiate peace
but who also establish unreasonable conditions
necessary for negotiations to begin?
Or are they, perhaps, that vast number of people,
confused and discouraged by the Vietnamania of press and public expression
who simply retreat from consideration of the conflict?
God, who really are the peacemakers;
those worthy to be called your children?
And where are they now,
when and where they're needed so much?
"They're here, at work all over in my world.
You just mentioned some of the things that they are doing.
There are many ways to make peace.
For example, you: what did you do today?"
Oh, no, God. Not me.
I didn't do any peacemaking today.
In fact, I didn't do much of anything today.
I sat with a premature baby for awhile,
encouraging it to breathe.
I gave an old lady some "headache medicine."
I bandaged a thumb, where a skin graft covered the piece
blown off by a grenade.
And what else?
I helped the doctor remove stitches from an eye now
minus its clouded cataract.
I emptied urine bottles and
spent many frustrating minutes trying to understand
and be understood on nearly every subject,
from abdominal pain to how to record temperatures on charts.
No, God, I didn't get much peacemaking done today.