“Visions of Vietnam”: A Night In the Red Light District Is Not Always Pleasurable

In the late summer of 1965, I was sent to on-the-job training (“OJT”) at the base hospital at Fort Campbell. It was ten weeks of rotations on each ward such as emergency, pre-op, post-op, and orthopedics, as well as additional classroom work. OJT was great because we dealt with real patients and gained hands-on experience about what to do in a field hospital.

OJT was the only time I worked with nurses; I didn’t have that opportunity in Vietnam. One time, I was in charge of keeping clean the colostomy dressing for a high-ranking patient who had come in for surgery on a blocked bowel and had a heart attack while on the operating table. The ward nurse said to me, “I’ll do all the TPRs [temperature, pulse, and respiration] tonight for all the patients. You just keep your eye on the red light over that room. When the red light goes on, go down and see what the patient needs.” I did just that. I was eager to put into practice some elements of my training.

On one occasion when I was summoned to the patient’s room, he informed me that he had soiled his colostomy dressing. I removed the dressing and began cleaning the incision. Due to his heart attack during surgery, the O.R. surgeons had performed a quick, crude colostomy in order to get him off the operating table and stabilized. So, when I tended to him, he still had two inches of exposed intestines at the site of the incision. As if leaning in close to clean the feces from inside the incision wasn’t bad enough, I was suddenly treated to the melodious sound and maleficent odor of the patient passing gas through the intestine into my face. While doing so, his intestine’s flapped in the breeze like the orifice of a whoopee cushion. That was the lowlight of OJT!

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