My time spent at the Oaknoll Naval Hospital was unfortunate but a good lesson builder if you want to call it that. When I first arrived there were no beds left in the general ward so I was placed in the amputee ward. I learned a great deal about how lucky I was and a lot about the human spirit. Without extensive details about the human train wrecks in that ward I noted that those who were able helped those who could not. There wasn’t much I could do having a full upper body cast and an airplane spike which supported the cast on my left arm and shoulder. I had managed not only to dislocate my shoulder but I also broke the upper arm bone. I got used to the Marine who was screaming for morphine every few hours or so. Seems he was in the final stage of cancer, he couldn't walk or function in any capacity. Often I would see him laying face down on his low pushcart, he propelled himself around with his gloved hands on the deck. Later on I saw him standing up talking to other vets. Found out since the cancer was aggressively killing him the doctors had cut some of the nerve connections, now sure how that is done. Afterwards he couldn't feel anything which allowed him to function a lot better. They released him to return home, better to die there I guess than in this ward. This cancer incident that I witnessed was a precursor to my own later in life. On my 55th birthday in fact, so far I have survived my bout with cancer. My assigned bunk was next to a Marine who had lost a hand and part of both legs. Overheard him say that someone threw a satchel mine at him. His wife was often in the ward with him, I thought about what I would do if I was in his tough spot. In the bunk on the other side of me was another disaster. He had a leg in traction, a wire was run through his knee to hold everything in place. Drinking and driving with no seat belt, his knee rammed into the dash and was so badly broken the doctors were considering amputation. When I left a month later he was still there.
On the week ends those who could were allowed off base, sometimes being picked up by relatives or taken out by the ‘do good’ crowd. It was a Saturday and myself an a few strays were all that remained. A fellow in a wheel chair with his left leg in a straight cast rolled up to me. He wanted me to help him to go down to the ‘gedunk’, (candy and junk food store). Well the hill there was exceptionally steep and there was no way I could help him with only one good working arm.
The next morning I saw him again. Both legs were in a cast! Asking him what the hell had happened he explained that he decided to try to ease himself down the hill. As he found out the hill was too steep and the wheel chair started rolling out of control despite his attempts to stop it. Thinking quickly he saw this telephone pole and aimed straight at it. He stuck his good leg straight out to cushion the oncoming blow. Talk about laugh, even he found it funny.
The Candy Stripe girls often came around to spread what cheer they could. Some of them were performing an Irish dance for the guys, I rather liked it. Having a cast as a shirt put a damper on things for me so I tended to stay away from the happy girls and their attending volunteers. I saw them talking to some of the men who definitely needed some support. Later that week we were visited by a General whose name I am unable to recall. There was a bunch of us lounging around outside by the support railings. Of course we were all wearing hospital gowns, no way to tell what branch of service you were in. I guess I looked like such a mess with the cast that he picked me out to shake my hand. The only Navy guy in the ward, so out of all those Marines he got me instead.
REPLY FROM OLD SENIOR CHIEF 1946:
Your story brings back memories of my
short stay at the Portsmouth (VA) Naval Hospital in the 70's. I was
there for treament of blood poisoning and cellulites in my leg - not
too smart Corpsman thought the swelling was a cyst and cut into it.
Within twelve hours I was a very sick puppy. The ship was leaving
for Puerto Rico and left me behind. I have a scar on the inside of
my middle right thigh - the doctors see it now and think it was
caused by a gunshot wound. I play around with them about it but I
always let them know what really caused it. There were not many
Vietnam casualties in that ward but several in the ward next to us,
where they did mostly reconstructive surgery. Some of them had been
there for quite a while. They were growing new skin tissue on this
one Marine - he had these awful looking masses (globs?) on his face
and neck - at least what was left of his face. He said they had been
working on him for a couple of years. They periodically harvested
this "new tissue" and used it to reconstruct his face - a very time
consuming process. He stayed covered with bandages when he was
wandering around the hospital but sometimes he "let it all hang out"
when he was on the ward. He truly looked like something out of a
horror movie but he was a damn nice guy with a great sense of humor.
There were some other sad cases there. One old gentleman, probably
in his late seventies, came in for exploratory surgery after having
abdominal pains for a couple of years - the cause could not be
diagnosed. He was an old Chief - a hole snipe and four piper
destroyer sailor. Everyone on the ward loved to hear his sea stories
and we also loved his little wife, Rosa, who was about his age and
still spoke with a heavy Italian accent. She adored him. Well
- they opened him up only to close him up immediately. He was ate up
with cancer. He didn't come back to our ward - I understand he went
to an ICU and died there a few days after surgery. The surgery just
pissed the cancer off. Everyone in the ward
moped around for several days after
that. Another big burly First Class came in with bad stomach pains.
They opened him up and found that he had swallowed a toothpick,
probably while he was drunk, causing an obstruction. He was a
Shipfitter - like me - not the sharpest blade on the block. He
didn't take kindly to all the ribbing the guys gave him and was
ready to whip some ass. Another young lad came in after being shot
in the ass 6 times with a small 32 cal pistol by a jealous husband
in one of the local clip joint bars. I became good friends with him
- my kind of guy!-LOL He was a native American from Alaska - not an
Eskimo, had another name for his tribe that I was not familiar with.
With his wounds, he could not do much bending. Except for a stiff
right leg, I was pretty agile - so we teamed up on the working
parties and between the two of us, we could get things done a lot