If you have ever received care from a physician who trained in the United States, that doctor likely learned from a veteran in a VHA facility. So our veterans continue to serve even after they leave military service.
Here I share several stories about veterans. Enjoy them, and make time to thank veterans this week.
“I didn’t want to ever go to Vietnam again when I came home in 1972 after a one-year tour of duty with the United States Army. I was stationed with the Americal Division, 3/18 Field Artillery Battalion near Tra Bong, a major village located about 25 miles west of Chu Lai, the headquarters of the Americal Division, on “China Beach” at the South China Sea.”
We always visit the traveling Vietnam Veteran Memorial Wall replica when it comes to our area.
The author, Judy Melinek, M.D., wrote this account of her training as a forensic pathologist, a physician specialist who investigates sudden, unexpected or violent deaths. Her husband, T.J. Mitchell co-authored.
When she applied for a position in New York City at the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), Dr. Judy Melinek never imagined that decision would plunge her into the nightmare of September 11, 2001. She was at the ME office that day when the Twin Towers were attacked and fell, killing thousands of people.
The main job of a medical examiner is to investigate death by examining a corpse- an autopsy. They look for evidence of cause of death, was it due to disease or trauma, and time of death, was it recent or remote. They hunt for signs that the death was self or other inflicted. Sometimes they may even need to establish the identity of the corpse.
Such was the case after September 11. She and the other staff collaborated with the team of investigators who worked night and day identifying remains of the victims, a task she vividly describes in the book. This was basically their only job, since the cause of death was for the most part irrelevant, and impossible to determine. Sometimes they had only a small body part, as little as a finger, to extract DNA to identity a victim. Such identification was critical to bring closure to the families who lost loved ones, people who left for work that day, and never came home.
Dr. Melinek describes not only the science of what she was doing, but also the emotion behind it; how she and the other medical examiners and staff felt about their work. She describes how it affected her relationship with her husband and young son, the problem of explaining to him what she was seeing and experiencing on a daily basis. She didn’t have the heart to tell him how many trailers full of partial bodies there were, after he saw just one and was shocked.
She also discusses other cases she worked on. As a forensic pathologist, Dr. Melinek understands why and how people die, and therefore also knows how people can avoid dying unexpectedly. Pathologists tend to be blunt, straightforward and to the point, as when she writes,
“So don’t jaywalk.
Wear your seat belt when you drive.
Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise.
Watch your weight.
If you’re a smoker, stop right now. If your aren’t, don’t start.
Guns put holes in people. Drugs are bad.
You know that yellow line on the subway platform? It’s there for a reason.
Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense.”
Working Stiffmoves at a quick pace, in a conversational style. When she uses medical jargon, she explains it in simple terms. She describes the cases she investigated in detail so those with weak stomachs (no pun) may want to skip this read.
Having experienced her father’s unexpected death when she was 13 years old, she was no stranger to it, and she learned more from the 262 autopsies she did during her training. As she says in this engaging memoir,
“To confront death every day, to see it for yourself, you have to love the living.”
“In City of Dust, Anthony DePalma offers the first full accounting of one of the gravest environmental catastrophes in United States history.
The destruction on 9/11 of two of the world’s largest buildings unleashed a vortex of dust and ash that blotted out the sun and has distorted science, medicine and public policy ever since. The likely dangers of 9/11’s massive dust cloud were evident from the beginning, yet thousands chose not to see. Why? As the sickening results of exposure became evident, many still refused to recognize them. Why? The consequences are still being tallied in the wasted bodies and disrupted lives of thousands who gave their all when the need was greatest, but whose demands for justice have been consumed by years of politics and courtroom maneuvers.
Separating reality from myth – and doing so with exceptional literary style and grace, DePalma covered Ground Zero for The New York Times for four years. DePalma introduces heroic firefighters, dedicated doctors and scientists, obsessive city officials, partisan politicians, aggressive lawyers, and compassionate judges and reveals the individual decisions that destroyed public trust, and the desperate attempts made to rebuild it.
The dust that was the World Trade Center has changed everything it touched. This is the story of that dust, the 9/11 disaster after the disaster, and what it tells us about ourselves and our future.”
“Written in conjunction with the documentary Rebirth, a full decade in the making, an uplifting look at the lives of nine individuals whose lives were forever changed by the largest tragedy our nation has ever faced.
In Project Rebirth, a psychologist and a journalist examine the lives of nine people who were directly affected by the events of September 11, 2001. Written concurrently with the filming of the documentary, it is uniquely positioned to tackle the questions raised about how people react in the face of crippling grief, how you maintain hope for a future when your life as you knew it is destroyed, and the amazing ability of humans to focus on the positive aspects of day-to-day living in the face of tragedy.”
“Outside the chalk-white tent, the whistle of traffic along the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive signals the forward movement of a city. But inside, 16 refrigerated trailers hum in a ceaseless chorus, giving voice to the dead whose remains are contained in their hold.
The trailers hummed as time separated the city from the 11th of September: as the smoking mountain of what had been the World Trade Center became a yawning hole; as 1.6 million tons of debris were sifted through on a Staten Island landfill; as commemorative services caused heads to bow. They hummed and they continue to hum, a mantra-like reminder that talk of closure is premature.” (excerpt from newspaper article)
former National Coordinator of Disaster Volunteers for the American Red Cross
“You never know when your life is going to change.
My red business suit was almost buttoned, and I was rehearsing my presentation for the Milford, Connecticut Red Cross board of directors, even though my mind kept wandering to my wedding just nine days earlier in Walt Disney World. An urgent call from my new husband to come to the television interrupted my wedding day dreams.
As soon as I saw the images of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, I knew that my plans for the day – maybe even my life – had changed.” (excerpt from article at ems1.com)
“What do Ossler’s insights reveal about finding meaning and purpose in the thick of chaos and personal tragedy?
Chaplain Ossler chronicles the best of humanity—acts of courage and goodness in the midst of unimaginable devastation. As terrorist attacks continue to assault humanity, Triumph Over Terror reveals how your spirit can triumph over terror’s reign, and how you can help others suffering from trauma and loss.”(Amazon review)
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By the most recent statistics published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 48% of United States medical school graduates are women; in some states, over 50% are women. If that trend continues, eventually at least half of all practicing physicians in the United States will be women. Currently about one third are female.
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Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
The first woman graduate of a United States medical school was born in Bristol England in 1821. (thank you, UK readers). Elizabeth Blackwell came to this country as a child and originally had no interest in medicine. But when a dying friend told her, “I would have been spared suffering if a woman had been my doctor”, she found her calling.
She was denied admission to multiple medical schools. The Geneva Medical College of New York submitted her application to the student body for a vote, and, as a joke, they voted to admit her. Well, the joke was on them as she enrolled, completed medical school and graduated in 1849.
With her sister, Emily Blackwell , who also graduated from medical school, and a German physician, Marie Zakrzewska, they opened and ran the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857.
Dr. Emily Blackwell managed the Infirmary for 40 years. Dr. Marie Zakrzewska moved to Boston when she founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which trained women physicians and cared for the poor.
Due to failing health, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell retired from practice in the 1870s.
Dr. Blackwell embodied the ABC characteristics of extraordinary women physicians-
Attentive, Brave, Compassionate
Women physicians providing free medical care in a mission hospital
women doctors and nurses operating during a medical mission trip
Women physician members of CMDA providing medical care in Ecuador
Dr.Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Prior to founding her hospital, Dr.Zakrzewska served as professor at the New England Female Medical College. That school produced another notable women physician, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.
Dr. Crumpler graduated in 1864, becoming the first African-American woman to earn the M.D. in the United States. After practicing in Boston, she moved to Virginia where she and other black physicians cared for freed slaves, who otherwise would have had no access to medical care. In 1883 Dr. Crumpler wrote a book of medical advice for women and children, titled Book of Medical Discourses, one of the earliest medical publications by an African American.
Dr. Virginia Apgar
More recently, a woman physician’s work has impacted the lives of countless babies and their families. If you have had a baby, or been born within the past 60 years, you benefited from the work of Virginia Apgar, M.D.
She was neither an obstetrician or a pediatrician, but an anesthesiologist. As she observed deliveries of infants she proposed a scale to rate how well a newborn was adapting to life outside the mother.
She considered 5 factors:
respiratory (breathing) rate,
color-pink (warm) or blue(cold)
And assigned each a score- 0, 1, or 2, at 1 minute of age, and again at 5 minutes.
So a newborn had a potential score as low as 0 and as high as 10.
The higher the score, referred to as the Apgar score, the more likely the baby was healthy and would do well. The lower the score meant the baby was in trouble, and needed intensive medical attention.
After testing the use of the rating scale over several years, doctors starting using it routinely; so for the past 50-60 years almost all babies have been “graded” with an Apgar score at birth. The Apgar score is used widely throughout the world.
Dr. Apgar, who played violin and cello in her college orchestra, was appointed the first full professor of medicine at Columbia University and also was a director for the March of Dimes.
In college I joined Chi Alpha, a faith-based student group. When I started dating a young man of a different belief, he enjoyed coming to the gatherings with me and my friends liked him. . We were fond of each other, but his feelings grew stronger and more serious than mine.
I felt it only fair to end the relationship. We parted amicably but he left our group; it was awkward for both of us. Although I felt the breakup was necessary, I grieved for the loss of our friendship.
One evening several of us were talking when a new member of our group joined us. We knew little about him other than he had recently left the Army and started attending our college.
He looked at me and said, “Where is John tonight?” (not his real name) No one spoke as everyone looked from me to him and back to me. Apparently he was the only one who didn’t know we had broken up.
Finally, one of the girls softly explained, “They aren’t dating anymore.”
Everyone remained silent, I suppose assuming I was upset at the reminder. I wasn’t upset but I realized everyone else was uncomfortable. I didn’t want our new friend to feel bad about the mistake, so I tried to make light of it. I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.
“That’s right,” I said smiling. “I’m available.”
With that, everyone, including me, laughed. Thinking back now, I puzzle why I said that. It was out of character for me, a confirmed introvert, and besides, I did not need or want another romantic relationship with anyone. I was planning to attend medical school, and romance did not fit into that plan.
However, the young man took me seriously, calling me a few days later to ask for a date. And despite my reluctance to become involved, I said yes.
“What harm could it do?” I thought. “Why sit in the dorm alone on Friday night?”
That night I learned about Raymond’s past. He separated from the Army after serving for three years. He had already earned a bachelor’s degree and was attending graduate school with his veteran’s benefits. I casually asked if he had been stationed overseas. He said yes- he had served in Germany and in Vietnam. I did not realize those words also would change my life.
This was 1972 and the American war in Vietnam was raging. The United States government needed soldiers to carry out the engagement, and was drafting them, which which they and their families dreaded. The war was unpopular and divided our country. We watched the course of the conflict nightly on television news (no Internet or social media then).
Raymond was the first person I knew personally who had served in Vietnam. Service members and veterans of that war were portrayed in the media as fighting an unnecessary, unjustified war at best and as baby killers at worst.
Today military service members and veterans are honored and considered heroes . Today’s veterans feel proud of what they do; not so for those who served in Vietnam.
Over dates at football games, church, social events and study times our feelings for each other grew. from friendship to love. He asked me to marry him a few weeks later, but I wouldn’t commit so soon. We married about 2 years later, as he completed his master’s degree.
Soon after our wedding I started medical school, graduated and started practicing. He pursued a career in the Information Technology industry. We raised two sons, traveled, attended church.
But our “happily ever after” did not match reality. Our marriage was often tense, unsatisfying, and distant and we did not understand why. We did not communicate well. He felt I was demanding and controlling. I felt he was insensitive and selfish. We had to look to the past to find the reason for the pain in our present.
Military medicine now recognizes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a common result of service in combat; 40 years ago it was unrecognized and untreated. There were no support groups, counselling or rehabilitative services available.
My husband said little about his military service, so for years we both suffered the effects of unrecognized PTSD. By the mid-1980s veterans’ groups pushed to recognize the service of Vietnam veterans and encouraged discussion about the psychic trauma many of them dealt with; and with that came opportunities for treatment and healing.
Through counselling and a support group my husband faced the past and gained a will to move forward. After reading a book , A Missing Peace, written by another Vietnam veteran, he considered taking a trip back to Vietnam and after much thought and prayer, signed up, although we were both apprehensive.
He chose to travel with Vets with a Mission , VWAM, a faith based non-profit organization whose mission is “reconciliation” between former enemies in the Vietnam war, and also within the veterans’ themselves.
By touring the country and meeting Vietnamese people in peacetime, Raymond began moving past the painful memories and creating a new history. He found a country still suffering from the after effects of many years of war, and found a new purpose for his life- to help the very country that had caused us so much pain.
That trip led to another, and another, and another- thirteen trips serving on volunteer teams to Vietnam with VWAM. He served by teaching the computer technology he spent years honing and mentored Vietnamese professionals as they developed skills like his.
Dr. Aletha treating a Vietnamese woman
Raymond teaching hospital staff abut using computers in 1995
I accompanied him on many of these trips, serving as physician on medical teams, treating poor Vietnamese citizens in free clinics. We made friends with other veterans and their families, and with Vietnamese people, who often respected American Vietnam veterans more than Americans do.
Raymond found “reconciliation” for himself and we experienced it in our marriage. It was a process and still is.
As a pre-teen I read a book about an American doctor who treated poor people in a foreign country. I developed an interest in health care through that and other books, and decided to become a doctor. I dreamed of someday traveling overseas and treating people like he and other doctors did.
I didn’t remember anything about him except his name. I did an Internet search and found his story- Dr. Tom Dooley. Now deceased, he served a physician in the United States Navy and in the 1950s was assigned to direct the care of refugees- in Vietnam. (After his military service, he founded a humanitarian organization and tragically died young of melanoma.)
When I watched the war in Vietnam on TV news, I didn’t realize the doctor I had read about had worked there. I never imagined that I would ever go there. And I never imagined that war would indirectly help me meet my husband, and create a family that brings me joy every day.
When I said, “I’m available” I had no idea how true that would be.