Monday, March 06, 2006

Chapter 21: My Second Operation

I was in ICU at the 249th General Hospital in Camp Drake, Japan for a few days before the surgery to close my wounds. They couldn’t close them for at least 10 days after I was wounded because of the risk of infection. If you remember, I was wounded by a homemade claymore mine, so everything in it was dirty and could cause infection if my wounds weren’t tended to properly. The mine was described to me as something that looked like a large tuna fish on its side. It was packed first with some sort of explosive and then layered with anything they could find to cause damage when the pieces struck you like pieces of metal and glass. Then a layer of mud covered that and was packed very tightly and allowed to dry sealing the whole thing. A small hole was poked in one side just big enough for a blasting cap. The blasting cap was attached to a long wire and detonated using an old battery that we more than likely carelessly threw away. It was very likely that everything the mines were made from was from the garbage we threw away. That’s why we were never supposed to just toss our garbage away anywhere we felt like it. You never knew what the Vietcong could come up with to use it against you.

The mines were typically manufactured in underground manufacturing plants in the Cu Chi tunnel system near where I was stationed. This map gives an idea of the extent of the tunnel system at Cu Chi--the orange lines represent major tunnels.

At its peak the Cu Chi tunnel network covered some 250 kilometres - from the Cambodian border in the west to the outskirts of what was then Saigon and includes everything necessary to support an army, from hospitals, kitchens and mess halls, to headquarters facilities.

I remember the day I was prepped for surgery. It was pretty much like the prep for surgery back at Cu Chi. I was given a shot to relax me and moved into an operating room. This operating room was much more modern at the 249th and very much the ones in any large modern hospital you saw in the states at the time. In case you’re wondering, yes, I said the pretty much the same things I said to the doctor just before my first operation at Cu Chi. “Wait an minute! Make sure you don’t start cutting on me until I’m a sleep, okay?” “Don’t worry, we won’t, now start counting backwards from 100.”

I woke up after the surgery in recovery and eventually moved to the ward that I would spend the rest of my stay in this hospital. This ward was a lot more open than ICU. The photo below, is an old picture of one of the wards at the 249th I found on the Internet. There was a walkway just outside the windows in the background. I was in the row just behind the beds these guys are standing in front of, opposite the beds against the windows. My bed was just a few beds away from a door to outside that is out of the picture to the right.

Soon after I was settled in, in the ward, the surgeon came to see me and discuss what he did. The doctor told me the surgery went very well, but due to the extent and quantity of wounds I had, I was in surgery for, if I remember correctly, about four hours.

I remember asking him “How many stitches did it take to close them all?” He smiled and told me “I really don’t know exactly, maybe 500 or 600.

I was shocked at how many stitches it took and said, “That’s a lot of stitches, how many wounds do I have?”

Another smile and he said “I don’t know that either exactly. There were several doctors working on you at once, but I’d say about 30 to 40. A few of the wounds were quite large, like the ones on your back and the one on your left hip, but none of them are serious and you’ll make a full recovery.” he replied. “On the deeper wounds, we had to stitch them closed on both the inside and out. Also, some we couldn’t use regular stitches so we closed them with wire.

“Now what happens?” I asked.

He told me, “Your going to need a lot of physical therapy to help you make a full recovery, but don't get discouraged, you will make a full recovery. Someone from physical therapy will be coming to see you tomorrow or the next day and do an evaluation to see what therapy is needed.”

Now for my most important question, “When will I be going home?”

The doctor told me, “That really depends on if there are any complications like infection.” he said, “But if everything goes as we predict, very soon after the stitches are removed, which will be in about two weeks. Then we’ll make the final decision, but I’m sure it will be well before Christmas.”

The doctor was correct, I did make it home well before Christmas, but not without a few setbacks. I’ll tell you about them in another story.