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“Why did I write the book? Essentially, I had to”: A surgeon reflects on his time in Vietnam

For Christmas in 1982, Henry Ward Trueblood’s wife, Nancy, gave him a book about the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang, the first major engagement between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces. The battle took place shortly after Trueblood, MD, arrived for a yearlong tour of duty in Vietnam, having been drafted as a Navy surgeon during his second year of residency. Nearly two decades later, Trueblood took one look at the book cover and began to cry.

Nancy, a psychologist, told him that he either needed to get mental health treatment or start writing. Trueblood promptly signed up for a class in poetry writing. He has since published a volume of poems, To Bind Up Their Wounds, and is at work on a second.

He also spent a decade writing a memoir of his year in Vietnam based on the letters he exchanged with Nancy, then his girlfriend. He refined his efforts by reading chapters aloud at meetings of Stanford’s Pegasus Physician Writers group. I spoke with Trueblood, a retired Stanford clinical professor of surgery, about that book, A Surgeon’s War, and his memories.

Why did you decide to write a book?

I bought a diary [before reporting for duty], and I used it for a couple of days, but Nancy was sending me a letter every day, and I was writing her, and I realized I couldn’t do both. So we decided she would keep my letters, and I would keep hers. There was that early hint that there was enough of a historian in me that I thought it would be important. I had a sense this was the big issue of my life. And it was.

I hadn’t ever really treated a gunshot wound before. I didn’t know what a young man nearly bled to death looked like. Why did I write the book? Essentially, I had to. I had a sadness that haunted me, as you can tell from my cracked voice.

How did the letters help you write the book?

I had a box of over 400 letters. I’d been afraid to open them. But I absolutely knew I had to do it.

I knew details of hundreds of cases — they were so vivid, I didn’t need the letters to remind me. The letters gave me the whole big sweep. The beginning of knowing so little and getting up to speed. How intuitive I became — I could walk up to a bed in triage and tell you pretty close to how much blood had been lost, just by the function of the young man’s brain and where the wounds were.

I didn’t ever think I was depressed until I started reading the letters and said, ‘Oh, I stopped playing volleyball. That was the main fun thing to do.’ About nine months in, I started getting depressed. All of us were. [Fellow doctor] Lloyd Waldron, who was a tough Texan, was full of funny stories when I got there. In time I watched him get ‘the look.’ I stopped going to the officers’ bar in the evening. I stopped meeting the new people who came in and out. Just by sheer willpower, I finished out my year.

You came back, built a successful professional life and had a family. How do you regain the capacity for joy after an experience like that?

I really locked it out for the longest period of time, until the deep sadness came back. I often had dreams about a wound I couldn’t fix. But I think I had a pretty normal life until I realized that this issue had to be addressed. I found I sought out wilderness experiences and nature, and gardened a lot, and that gave me composure.

What has the response been to the book?

It’s been delightful. I’ve heard from people I haven’t heard from in years, and especially notable are calls from children of some of the men I wrote about — the other doctors. They universally said, ‘My dad never told me this.’ I have a friendship with the garden store in Ladera [a community near Stanford], and they’ve put my book out and sold over 60 books in that little garden store. I think it’s partly because the cover photo is so right-on and gripping.

How did you discover the photo?

This photo was sent to us several months after Lance Corporal Perry Shinneman left the unit. It was taken in South Dakota upon his return home and appeared in Sunday newspapers across the country.

Shinneman was one of our most dramatic saves. His leg was blown off so high that you couldn’t use a tourniquet to control the bleeding and he ended up having almost 100 transfusions. And then it became infected. I was in charge of all of the post-op care, and Shinneman was so unstable I spent several nights on a cot near his bedside to monitor his condition.

Shinneman lived a full life. He couldn’t wear a prosthesis because there wasn’t enough leg to hook it to. But he worked as a parole officer and he volunteered at the VA. He lived until he was 70.

Previously: Dear Folksies: A medical blog from World War II, Physician writers reflect on uncertainty in medicine and Recovering from stroke, recovering from war: Two conversations about survival
Book cover courtesy of Henry Ward Trueblood; original photo by Ray Mews, Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, S.D.)