From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Do Not Resuscitate

It was exciting, yet a little frightening, too. It was 1967, and I was about to graduate as a young registered nurse. There were a lot of social movements taking place in America and a war going on in Southeast Asia. Expectations were high to go out into the world and do something good. Yet antiwar sentiments were also high; it wasn’t popular or fashionable to be patriotic. “Why on earth would a woman want to go to Vietnam?” asked too many to count, when I talked about serving my country.

At school, posters begging for nurses for the Vietnam conflict were everywhere. The words “The most beautiful woman in the world, the U.S. Army Nurse” were printed in bold type beneath a picture of a smiling young woman’s face—lipstick and all—topped with a steel “pot.”

Boys I knew, baby-faced soldiers in crisp, starched uniforms, with Beatles music in their ears, were taking off on jet planes for a scary place called Vietnam.

But as ragged soldiers returned from combat with old eyes in their broken young bodies, antiwar protesters hurled rotten eggs at them and jeered at them. Angry fists were lifted in marches and protests in small towns and big cities across the country. Draft cards and American flags burned. What is happening here? I wondered, dismayed and confused by the bitterly conflicting currents around me.

I made my decision and signed on as a U.S. Army nurse. I kissed my mom and dad good-bye and waved to my little sister and brothers. My parents knew too much—it was all in their eyes—and I knew too little.

I was inducted as a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps and sent to the Central Highlands of Pleiku, about thirty kilometers from the Cambodian border. In 1969, our four-hundred-bed evacuation hospital faced unrelenting casualties as we supported the Fourth Infantry Division, which was being overrun by the Vietcong and NVA. The wounded were perhaps ten minutes away from us by medical evacuation “dust off” helicopters. They arrived, wave after wave, in a steady stream.

Fulfilling my romanticized vision of nursing, in a ward full of wounded and burned young men, as well as Vietnamese and Montagnard civilians injured in the cross fires of war, was next to impossible. How could I make their cares lighter in this terrifying, dismal place?

Idealism clashed with the reality of chest tubes, tracheotomies, pit viper wounds, napalm burns, malaria, 105-degree fevers, gaping open wounds, blood transfusions, hepatitis and gangrene. Warned by the sound of mortar thuds, as rockets and shrapnel pierced the roof and walls, we threw mattresses on top of the patients who hadn’t already dived for the floor. How could I bring comfort and healing to this? Perhaps the most important thing for our patients was being there with them—offering our words, a smile and hope—as we went about our work.

It was a privilege to work with many wonderful people during my tour of duty in Vietnam. One person who stands out from my time in Pleiku is Fulton, a young hospital corpsman. Like all of our corpsmen, Fulton worked side by side with us. He dressed wounds and admirably performed many duties far beyond his years or training. Once, he helped me admit a little Montagnard girl diagnosed with the plague. All I knew about the disease was that it had wiped out entire populations. I asked the doctor on our unit to tell us what we could do for this precious, sad little child who was feverish and delirious. The doctor said the disease had progressed too far. He explained that plague can be transmitted through the saliva, and gave strict instructions that no one, under any circumstances, should do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as she succumbed to the disease. I briefed the corpsman and posted a note for fellow nurses: “Do Not Resuscitate.” We quarantined her away from the wounded GIs in the ward, and comforted and cared for her as best we could.

At one point, I looked over at her, and I froze, my heart pounding with fear. I rushed to the little girl’s bedside, crying, “Noooo! Fulton! Stop! Stop!” He was desperately trying to breathe life back into her. I reached him and grabbed his arm. “You can’t help her! Stop, I tell you!” I pulled him away from her lifeless body—from the soul he could not stop trying to save.

I said gently, “Fulton, did you forget what you learned about plague? What if your vaccination doesn’t protect you?”

He said, “Lieutenant, I just didn’t think about that.”

Over the years, I have thought of that little dark-haired girl so often. She came into the hospital so desperately alone. I know she felt Fulton’s love and arms around her as she took her last breath. Maybe her life was not saved by his heroic act, but her death was given dignity.

Fulton did not receive a medal for bravery, nor did he receive a hero’s welcome when he returned to America. He may even have been called a “baby killer” like so many of our returning GIs.

Fulton? A “baby killer”? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Fulton, I hope you are reading this. I changed your name to protect your privacy, but you will know that this is about you. You are my hero.

Diane Carlson Evans, R.N.

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