Our Years in Pleiku

by Lois Leuz,

MCC Vietnam, 1965-1968

In 1965, my husband Chris was a medical intern in Grand Rapids, Michigan, having finished medical school a year earlier. The U.S. government then decided to require all medical interns to serve in Việt Nam. Since we were hoping to later serve as missionaries, we were thankful to have an opportunity to take a “missionary internship” with MCC in Việt Nam for three years. This also became a testimony to Chris' fellow interns who had to serve their time in the army. They felt Chris wouldn’t have needed to serve, since he was a conscientious objector to war, but they respected him for his willingness to serve as a doctor in Việt Nam even as the war was ongoing.

Following three months of serving and learning at the MCC hospital in Nha Trang, we moved to Pleiku to begin a new MCC medical project with the tribal peoples and Vietnamese in the Pleiku area.

Until the new hospital was completed, Chris worked from the small clinic on the Christian and Missionary Alliance Compound with the two nurses there. To support himself and pay for schooling, throughout college Chris had worked for a building contractor during the summers and on Saturdays. This construction experience was a blessing, as he was able to help as the new MCC buildings were being built. 

When we first arrived in Pleiku, life was very simple. Electricity only came through for a few hours in the morning. Laundry was done by hand, and food meant daily trips to the market. Cleaning had to happen frequently because of the red dust—or red mud when it was the rainy season. Later, we got a kerosene refrigerator, and it arrived just in time: shortly after we began using it, a guest arrived from MCC headquarters in the evening, having not had supper. We didn't have much, but we had some meatloaf and bread in the refrigerator—previously, I would never have cooked enough to have leftovers. We were so pleased to be prepared for the unknown! Two weeks later, a telegram arrived telling us about the visit of this guest, who had already come and gone.

 

After some time, Chris was able to buy a used Briggs-Stratton motor and rig it to a washer-wringer machine to do laundry. By that time the number of MCC staff in Pleiku had increased, with other workers living with us until their own housing was secured nearby.

Eventually, the hospital building project was finished, and Chris began looking after inpatients in the hospital as well as holding clinics for outpatients. We soon encountered a problem, though: there was a need to work with the tribal people and the Việt/Kinh at different times. The tribal peoples were the original people of the land, having arrived on the Asian mainland by boat in the distant past, proudly holding a Malayo-Polynesian or Mon-Khmer background. The ethnic Việt people, who gradually moved south to the area from the Red River Delta over the centuries, forced the native tribal peoples into the mountains during their march south. Their cultures and languages are very different. We eventually settled on having clinics for the Vietnamese in the morning and clinics for the mountain people in the afternoon. 

In our area there were two main groups of tribal people: the Jarai and the Bahnar. We attended the Jarai Church, which grew in size by nearly 300% during the time we were in Việt Nam. We were also involved with the Vietnamese Church and helped with children's projects, meetings, and special events. Every Sunday afternoon, we helped the Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries with a hymn sing and dessert and coffee time, held as outreach to the other foreigners living in Pleiku.

 A visit to a small tribal village to distribute blankets and canned beef to those in need was a special event. We were served a simple meal with clean banana leaves for plates, and we were also given freshly carved chopsticks—very special, since the people of the village usually ate with their hands. The village’s houses are all on stilts, built by assembling the roof first and then raising it up, then constructing the walls and floor. Animals and chickens can then live under the house.

Dr. Dana Troyer from Goshen, Indiana, came to Nha Trang to train the MCC doctors in eye surgery. Chris traveled to Nha Trang for six weekends for the training. Due to the dust and strong winds in the area, many local people had entrophian issues of the eyelid, which caused the lid to turn under, and the rubbing of the eyelashes eventually caused blindness. Cataracts and other eye needs were common. 

After receiving this training, Chris removed the cataracts from the eyes of an older woman who had come to the clinic alone. When it was time for her to go home, I drove her into town from the clinic. The woman, however, couldn’t tell me where she lived, since she had been unable to see before, and now she couldn’t recognize any landmarks. As we drew near to the area where she lived, someone recognized her and gave us directions. The whole time she was sitting in the Citroen she was studying her hands, turning them over and back over again, amazed at being able to see them.

 Another time, an immunizations project required visiting a government clinic, and I volunteered to help one of the other nurses. Since the roads weren’t safe, we traveled to the village by helicopter. We arrived earlier than expected, and one of the staff persons suggested that we walk around the grounds until the time to start. We placed our closed medical bags on the stone wall enclosing the small garden at the entrance to the clinic, and when we returned we found that monkeys had come out of the garden, opened the bags, and carefully opened all the syringes, making them completely unusable. Fortunately, the other nurse had brought a glass syringe and bunsen burner, meaning the immunizations were still able to be completed. 

One afternoon during clinic hours at the hospital there was a sudden, strong thunderstorm. A tribal man was leading his cattle past the clinic and up the hill, and lightning struck one of the cows, killing it. The man simply left it there and continued on with the rest of his herd. Later, a Vietnamese man with a Lambretta pulled the cow into the back of his vehicle and hauled it away. The tribal people were fearful of the spirit of lightning and wouldn’t have eaten the meat of the cow. Later, that same family ate a pig that had fallen sick and died. They were not fearful enough of the spirit of disease. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One public health project took me and some other staff to a village several hours away. Since the U.S. military secured that road, we were able to travel by Land Rover to give children their immunizations in the community building of the town we visited. The project was completed, and as required, the group had to report to the American Sector for permission to return to Pleiku. The area was near what was called the Triangle, where there were many outbreaks of fighting. We were told that a bridge had been blown up, so all security forces had been pulled from the road. It was stated we should not return until later, when troops could be re-deployed. We met together as a group and prayed: should we try to return anyway? We had no way to communicate with our families and the hospital to say what had happened; they would certainly fear the worst. We made the decision to travel the unguarded road back to Pleiku, trusting in God to protect us. It was an uneventful return trip for which we are still grateful.

 Our first daughter, Kim, was born at the end of November 1967. The birth took place in one of eight operating rooms in a field hospital. The walls between rooms didn’t reach all the way to the ceiling. The other seven rooms held wounded soldiers just brought in from the battlefield. The doctor who offered to take care of me, so that Chris could be the pediatrician, had a year of OB training. After the delivery, Kim and I were placed in the vacant isolation room for privacy since all the other beds were in large wards. We stayed one night.

Everyone remembers the Tết Offensive of 1968. Until then, most of the time we felt like observers, with all the violence being confined to the countryside. The Việt Cộng had dug tunnels under the farmers' gardens in the valley below us, and they quickly came into the school just below the clinic when the fighting broke out. The American advisor with whom we were required to report felt that this was a short-lived happening. He was proven wrong. The Vietnamese New Year celebrations had many people shooting their guns into the air to celebrate, and those noises ended just after midnight. Around 3am, gunshots of violence broke out instead. Chris put Kim and me in an inner room with no windows and went to the hospital to check on the patients. He moved them to the Jarai Church for safety. That afternoon, the advisor said that we (along with the other missionaries in Pleiku) needed to move to the military base into a hospital ward that was empty at that time. At night, we often had to get under the beds and pull mattresses over us when alarms alerted us to do so. Two weeks later, our MCC leaders decided to send the MCC women and children out of the country to Penang, in Malaysia, for some safety away from the fighting. Chris and the other workers who wanted to stay were allowed to, hoping the situation would settle down and work could resume. Chris was able to continue seeing Vietnamese, Bahnar, and Jarai patients in the clinic and care for hospital patients. 

One night, with fighting approaching the hospital, Chris was forced to seek shelter in the ARVN/South Vietnamese artillery camp across the street from the hospital. He was carrying a lantern and shouted “American doctor” in Vietnamese. They took him in, and while doing so a bullet struck the tire of one of their vehicles next to where Chris was walking. This was six weeks since the offensive started, and the situation was still tense. He was advised to join Kim and me in Bangkok at the airport and then return home, since our term was almost finished. It was nine months until a doctor from Canada could safely continue MCC’s medical work in Pleiku.

 Chris began a surgical residency in July 1968, to complete training as a hand surgeon. He was inspired to study hands in Việt Nam, where he treated many patients with hand deformities caused by leprosy. 

Though it was unexpected, this “missionary internship” was a real blessing. It was a Heavenly gift to have the opportunity to serve our Lord with MCC in Việt Nam, and it encouraged us to continue on in a lifetime of service abroad.

Lois and Chris Leuz in front of the Pleiku Clinic

The MCC unit house in Pleiku

Refugee child in Pleiku with MCC bread.p

Clockwise from top left: MCC blankets are distributed to prisoners. Vietnamese at the Pleiku clinic. Tribespeople at the Pleiku clinic. Refugee boys receive MCC bread.