Facets of Medicine (3)


By William Wetherall

A Japanese version of this article appeared in
Kokutai, 16(5), June 1995, pages 164-165

I was initiated into the medical underground at the tender age of 12, when I worked as a mule for a San Francisco drug dealer. By my 26th birthday, I was a retired former U.S. Army vampire.

At age 12, I got a job delivering prescriptions for a pharmacy near my home just south of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Everyday, after school, I biked to the drug store, picked up several brown paper bags filled with medicine and other phone-ordered goods, and peddled them to the homes of customers all over the Sunset District, and beyond.

Most of the customers were older people. Some were amused to open their door and see such a small boy, who announced "Parkview Pharmacy", handed them a bag with an invoice and bill clipped to it, and politely requested payment. Others seemed apprehensive about conducting business with a prepubescent boy who spoke with a nervous stammer and sometimes didn't have enough money to make change.

I've had at least one job ever since. During the summer between my second and third year of middle school, I worked in a print shop. By my last year of middle school, I was working as a gardener, babysitter, and fence and porch painter around the neighborhood, and in town as a clerk at a family shoe store cum men's haberdashery.

I was a sophomore in high school in October 1957, when the former Soviet Union beat the US into space with the launching of the Sputnik satellite. So I went to college with the first wave of the post-Sputnik generation, which received a more intense science and math education.

At college I majored in Electrical Engineering, and I was intent on getting a job in the aerospace industry. During the summers I worked at a U.S. Department of Navy shipyard in San Francisco as an assistant to electronics engineers who installed and aligned guided missile and torpedo fire-control radar and sonar on everything from submarines to aircraft carriers . I also worked as a surveyor for the U.S. Forest Service, and as a laboratory assistant for a chemistry professor.

Like many science and math majors in those heady days of romantic space exploration, my political innocence was shattered by the Cuban Crisis of 1962, when President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev confronted each other over the presence of Soviet missile bases in Cuba. The crisis awakened my whole generation to the sobering truth that most of the high tech that was being used to launch human beings into orbit around the earth and moon was being applied mainly to the building of nuclear arsenals capable of destroying all life on our planet.

I became very alienated, not with technology itself but with its technocratic applications. I neglected my engineering studies in favor of auditing courses in the humanities. At the end of my third year in college, I was put on one-year probation for failure to complete my courses, and so rather than return to school that fall, I continued to work as a surveyor.

In the meantime I was ordered to take a physical examination as the first step of induction into the U.S. Army. I was certain that my educational and employment background would result in my being assigned to an army missile group, which would have conflicted with my new social consciousness. Hence I volunteered for three years of service, instead of the usual two years when drafted, in order to be able to choose my military occupation, and I chose to be trained as a medical corpsman.

I figured that if I was going to be in the army, I might as well be saving lives rather than killing people. Only after I had become a vampire, however, did I realize that my desire to help the wounded rather than fire weapons was also a product of political naivete.

Kennedy was assassinated in the fall of 1963 while I was in basic training at Fort Ord in California. In the winter I received three months of training as a corpsman at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. I wanted to continue to train as a surgical technician, but in the spring of 1964 I was assigned to an ambulance company in a medical battalion that supported an evacuation hospital at Fort Ord. It was peacetime, and so my unit participated in lots of field exercises, during which I helped doctor numerous foot blisters, sun burns, and heat strokes.

Late in the summer, I was reassigned to Fort Ord General Hospital, and I was clerking in the medical examination section when the Vietnam War began in the fall of 1964. I was among the majority of corpsmen who were not even sure where Vietnam was. But the army suddenly needed more medical technicians, and so our personnel records were screened, and the few corpsmen with college backgrounds in biology or chemistry were sent to various medical facilities for advanced training.

I was sent to a regional medical laboratory, where I received six months training, under civilian experts, for laboratory procedures in six departments: hematology, bacteriology, parasitology, blood chemistry, serology, and histopathology. During this training, letters came from friends in the ambulance unit, which had been sent to Vietnam.

During and after my training, I interned for several months in the medical laboratory at Fort Ord General Hospital. While carrying out clinical tests in the lab, I shared general duties like ward rounds, day clinic, and night call.

Every morning I picked up my blood-drawing tray and headed out for the wards. Maternity, Pediatrics, Geriatrics, ICU. The Maternity and Pediatrics wards were full of the wives and children of servicemen. The Geriatrics ward was a warehouse of old soldiers, some of them veterans of the First World War who had come there to fade away, as MacArthur would have put it. Night call was mainly emergency room work.

Eventually I was assigned to a general field hospital waiting for orders to go somewhere in Asia. Not until the night before our flight were we told that our destination was Japan. By Christmas 1965, I was helping set up a pathology laboratory at Kishine Barracks in Yokohama.

As soon as we arrived and unpacked our equipment -- including glass petri dishes and syringes, and sharpenable needles, all of which we had to clean and autoclave before reusing -- we began receiving patients -- U.S. Army battlefield casualties and medical cases -- directly from Vietnam, via Yokota Air Base. The hospital became a center for both orthopedic surgery and burns. We also had a malaria ward, and a neuropsychiatric ward for soldiers with battle fatigue and other mental problems.

I helped set up the Chemistry and Histopathology sections, then settled in Microbiology, where I identified fecal and other bacteria that contaminated most battlefield wounds in Vietnam, and the intestinal parasites that many soldiers picked up during their Vietnam tours.

On night call, I had to do everything. Most new admissions came at night, by helicopter, some still in their battle fatigues. Young men my age. Arm, shoulder, hip, leg joints blown up. Skin burned off. All needed general screening tests. Many required preop stats and blood.

The patient I will most remember, however, underwent elective surgery for a duodenal ulcer. Ironically, he was the only patient who died during the eight [sic = nine] months I was stationed at the hospital.

His name was Murray, and I followed his progress and regress from the day he was admitted to the preop ward, then to the ICU ward where he died a few days after surgery from acute peritonitis, and finally to the postmortem slides showing the hole the surgeon had left in his stomach.

I will never forget the day the lab chief brought Murray's brain back from Camp Zama, where he had performed a forensic autopsy. The pathologist called me and a few other lab techs over to a corner of the histopathology section and gave us a two hour lecture on the anatomy of the human brain. Slice by slice, we probed the depths of Murray's gray-pink mind, parts of which ended up in jars of formaldehyde.

After writing this article I began to doubt my designation of Zama as the place where Murray's autopsy was performed. I had an occasion to visit the hospital at Camp Zama, which like Yokohama is in Kanagawa prefecture, and perhaps that is why it came to mind at the time. My memory now tells me that Murray's autopsy was performed at Johnson Air Force Base on the other side of Tokyo prefecture from Kanagawa. See Virgil Murray (1966) on the Kishine Barracks page for details.

I also remember Murray well because he had requested that I be the lab tech to draw the blood culture that the doctor had ordered after finding that his abdomen was festering with bacteria. Murray, who had no idea what all the fuss was about, joked that I was the "best vampire" in the hospital.

While I was always pleased to be praised for my dubious bedside skills with needles of all sizes, I often felt, while trying to boost the morale of suffering young men who had borne arms in Vietnam, that I'd rather be delivering prescriptions on a bicycle in San Francisco.