When the first three U.S. Army nurses arrived in Saigon in April, 1956, on a temporary assignment to train South Vietnamese nurses, they had no idea how instrumental the Vietnam War would become in changing and advancing medical care.
“Trauma care as we know it today started in Vietnam,” said Lorelei Stein, CRNA, Ph.D.
Stein, Sleepy Hollow Road, a nurse anesthetist, researcher and educator for Allegheny Health Network, whose areas of research include the history of medical education and the history of medicine, conducted a research study that posed the question: What was the war experience like for nurses in Vietnam?
She presented her findings to an in-person and virtual audience at Mt. Lebanon Public Library on Wednesday, March 15. In her presentation, Military Nurses of the Vietnam War: Tenacity, Courage and Loss, Stein pointed out that most of the military nurses volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Many of them were daughters of WWII veterans, with an average age of 23. They were the youngest group of medical personnel to serve in war. Most had less than two years of nursing experience, with the majority having less than six months experience. According to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, most of the nearly 10,000 women in uniform who served in the Vietnam War were nurses.
“All agreed nothing could have prepared them for Vietnam,” said Stein. Yet, if given the opportunity again, nearly every nurse questioned said they would repeat the decision to serve in Vietnam.
While the terrain in Vietnam made traditional ambulance transport of the wounded nearly impossible, it helped pave the way for air ambulance service allowing soldiers to be treated in flight by an on-board medic, reminiscent of the air ambulance service of today.
Neurosurgery and vascular surgery were also advanced by what medical personnel learned from the treatment of wounded soldiers, as a result of the types of weaponry used and the types of wounds inflicted.
Accepting that the Vietnam experience changed them forever, most of the nurses added, “I was a better and more confident nurse,” Stein pointed out.