Remembering Vietnam: 2 physicians' stories

Nearly 800 doctors volunteered through an AMA program to care for Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War. Here are the memories of two of them.

By Damon Adams — Posted Dec. 26, 2005

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From 1966 to 1973, the American Medical Association administered Volunteer Physicians for Vietnam, an effort that sent U.S. physicians to war-torn Vietnam to provide medical care to civilians.

The United States ended its involvement in the Vietnam War in 1975. To mark the 30th anniversary, American Medical News spoke with two physicians who participated in Volunteer Physicians for Vietnam. Here are their reflections on the experience, accompanied by excerpts from reports they filed with the AMA at the end of their tours three decades ago.

William W. Funderburk, MD

In 1967, general surgeon William W. Funderburk, MD, spent two months in Danang, a city on the coast of the South China Sea. At a Danang hospital, he was in charge of the male surgical ward, which had about 60 beds and stretchers and 90 to 120 patients. About two in three surgeries at the hospital were for war-related injuries.


Remembering Vietnam: (Link for full-text pdf.) [Photo by Robin Pell / courtesy of AMA Archives]

The hospital conditions and diseases he encountered were quite different from those he experienced in Washington, D.C.

"The environmental conditions that we had to work with, one had to be innovative when the lights went out. There were diseases that we just didn't see in the U.S.," Dr. Funderburk, 74, said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., where he still practices as a general surgeon. "It gave me a different perspective and appreciation of the quality of medicine practiced in the United States."

He didn't fear for his life, but knew to stick near the hospital. "The only close calls were if you wandered out."

Dr. Funderburk volunteered as a way to serve his country. He knew that most doctors in Vietnam had been inducted into the military or were treating troops.

"Without the volunteer physicians in that area, multiple civilians would not have had any medical service at all," he said.

He has not returned to Vietnam, but he sponsored three Vietnamese doctors to receive training in the United States.

"I still see Vietnamese doctors in both hospitals I work in, and I still greet them with 'cho bac si' (hello doctor)."

End-of-tour report excerpts, 1967

"I can truly state about my two months rotation in Danang Surgical Hospital that this represented one of the most enlightening two months that I have ever spent in the practice of medicine and surgery. The multiple war casualties which were seen and treated were far out of proportion to anything that might be envisioned in the U.S., and the types of wounds were also quite unique.

"Many different disease processes were encountered during my stay in Danang Surgical Hospital that I would not have seen in the U.S., such as bubonic plague. There was an epidemic of plague approximately five miles outside of Danang, and we received some of the first patients; typhoid fever with its attending perforations and peptic ulcer appeared to be encountered very frequently.

"The patients themselves are about the same as I would consider American patients with the exception of the fact that it is most difficult to get them to get out of the bed after minor or major surgery. I would frequently have to physically sit the patient in the bed and demand that they get up and walk to get ambulated."

Jean E. Carlin, MD

Psychiatrist Jean E. Carlin, MD, spent two tours in Vietnam through the AMA volunteer effort, one in 1969, the other in 1971.

"I wanted to go because people needed help," Dr. Carlin said in a phone interview from her office in Seal Beach, Calif. "I had always intended to go overseas to practice medicine anyway."

She went to the village of Bac Lieu and was assigned to a hospital children's ward because there was no pediatrician available. The ward had no electricity; candles burned at the foot of the beds.

She treated patients with malaria, tuberculosis, skin diseases and nutritional problems. "I had patients with leprosy, something I'd never seen before."

During her second tour in 1971, she volunteered in what was then Saigon, where she did hospital rounds with surgeons and medical students and checked on pre- and postoperative children.

She said the patients were surprisingly brave and didn't complain. They found simple pleasures in a doctor's daily visit or a piece of candy.

"What was interesting to me was how difficult it was to provide proper care with such limited things, but what a wonderful job the doctors did."

Dr. Carlin, who was in her 30s at the time, made friends during her tours to Vietnam. She returned in 1979 to visit refugee camps.

"The patients who were there and the doctors who were there are the real heroes."

End-of-tour report excerpts, 1969

"The children's ward was an old building, which was so far out on the hospital grounds and so isolated and totally unprotected that at one time it was captured by the Viet Cong and held as a fort (That was before I came there).

"Sometimes that thought occurred to me as I went out there -- especially the time I had to go out there at night (accompanied by armed soldiers) to see a very sick baby. ... The child was very critically ill, so I carried her through the mud and grass to the emergency room, compressing her chest against my rib cage rhythmically to give her artificial respiration as we went. She looked about to die (three other babies did die of this epidemic in 24 hours), but somehow we found enough supplies to keep her alive.

"One week there were three nights of 1-A alerts for Viet Cong attacks. These are the most serious alerts and we were warned to have our guns ready (I won't have a gun) and to run to the nearest bunkers. The first time this happened I had a variety of feelings for about one to two hours, and then all was calm for me. We had no trouble on our compound, but we lost four Vietnamese soldiers and two were wounded in [an] ambush in outlying stations during those alerts. ... Strangely [being attacked] was not something we thought about much most of the day; perhaps 90% of the time was business as usual except for the ever-present soldiers with guns and sandbag bunkers and the barbed wire and the guards at fences and the tanks on the roads."

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To see more

American Medical Association members who want to view Volunteer Physicians for Vietnam photographs, end-of-tour reports and other material may contact the AMA Archives at 312-464-4083 or 312-464-5130.

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