Like so many wartime volunteers before them, a naive sense of adventure propelled Australian nurses to answer the call to serve on civilian surgical teams in Vietnam.
The South Vietnam government had appealed for medical aid to treat the civilian population as the majority of doctors had been conscripted into the army.
On arriving at the provincial hospitals where they would serve, the Australian medical teams were confronted by tropical heat, buildings that flooded in monsoonal rains, rats, and lack of basic supplies such as blood and drugs. They were afflicted by dysentery. Then there were the terrible injuries inflicted on innocents and fearing for their lives during bombings by the VietCong.
The first of the Australian teams came from the Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1964. From then until 1972 about 450 nurses, doctors, radiographers, anaesthetists and administrators arrived from teaching hospitals around Australia. The volunteers provided medical care to anyone, many of them civilians with shocking wounds, including children injured by landmines. Road accident injuries and tropical diseases such as typhoid and cholera were also common.
Between 1966 and 1972, 19 nurses in five teams from The Alfred Hospital volunteered at the Bien Hoa Hospital. With the Alfred Hospital Nurses League’s permission, we share some of their memories from the documentary Nineteen nurses, in honour of all the nurses who volunteered during the Vietnam War.
Canny Rigg – first team, January 1966
After two days in Saigon we were driven down to Bien Hoa where we were greeted by the Vietnamese hospital and a band, and they were not quite sure about our national anthem so they played ‘Come to the cookhouse door, boys’. It was quite delightful. We were served beer and whiskey and fresh fruit. The people were friendly and kind and very supportive.
Dot Angell OAM – fourth team – January 1967
It was mind-blowing. I had never seen anything like it. It was filthy dirty; you had to watch where you walked because you were literally walking through a human toilet.
Sue Leyland – third team – August 1966
We worked very hard, we worked very long hours and the first week we arrived I wasn’t sure what to expect but on what was probably the second day and we were still doing a handover with the previous team…the VietCong had blown up a bus and they used Claymore mines, which were very dirty mines. When we arrived at the hospital the scene was pretty horrific. There were bodies lying on the floor, there were two theatres and what I suppose was a triage area, which was covered in these bodies with limbs missing. There was so much blood and it was something quite horrific. I remember thinking ‘If this is how it’s going to be every day, I’m not sure how I’m going to cope with this.’
Von Clinch OAM – third team – August 1966
When we first arrived and I went through the drugs to see what we had, we had no morphine, three ampules of pethidine, four flasks of intravenous fluid and five intravenous giving sets. We had one bottle of oral erythromycin and no other antibiotics at all.
In early 1968 the VietCong launched a massive attack across South Vietnam – known as the Tet Offensive. Twelve months later, a similar offensive brought the Bien Hoa town, including the hospital, directly under attack. The team was taken to the hospital under military escort and performed over 50 operations in a day, only to be told the attack was expected to continue for the next week. Evacuation was offered but all decided to stay.
Maureen McLeod – third team – August 1966
All of a sudden I cannot tell you the loudness of it because it defies description…there was this noise and a few seconds later we took the full blast of the shockwave and all of a sudden the windows blew in, the instruments blew off the trolleys, patients were blown out of their beds. We got blown off our feet and thrown against the theatre wall. We ended up on the theatre floor with the glass from the IV bottles all around us.
One of the nurses, the late Robyn Anderson, established a nursing school at Bien Hoa.
Robyn Anderson – composite team, April 1969
That was the one of the things we left behind in Vietnam and I’m really very proud of it because that school five years ago turned out its first baccalaureate students. We also left behind thousands of people who are not dead because of the surgical work we did there. I’m very proud that I went. It was a pleasure to serve people who were so amazingly stoic.
Medical care campaign
Just like military personnel, those who had served in the volunteer surgical teams had an unusually high incidence of cancers and psychiatric ailments; unlike the military veterans, volunteers had to pay for their own medical treatment. An association for the Australian nurses continues to campaign for repatriation benefits to be extended to volunteer medical teams.