I first met him on a sweltering hot day in the summer. Although I’m not sure which month, I remember how hot it was. Of course that doesn’t narrow it down too much since 11 out of 12 months in Thanh Quit were hot. The sky was clear blue and the rice in the paddies was about waist high, so it must have been summer or perhaps late spring.We had been in contact during the night so, as I did on so many mornings, I found a shady spot at our day haven to flake out for a while. I had been asleep for about 10 minutes when I heard the dreaded phrase, “Hey Doc! Somebody wants to see you.” I opened one eye, ran my tongue around the inside of my mouth to loosen up and replied, “They better be dyin’ or somebody’s gonna get hurt.”
A moment later I was on my feet looking to see what dire emergency had occurred in the middle of my beauty sleep. Walking, or rather hobbling, toward me was a man who had to be older than anyone I had ever seen. His wizened face was tanned to a deep brown by years in the sun and lined with the wrinkles of too many years of hard work. He may not have been older than dirt, but he was certainly around when it was still new.
I started to walk toward him and he assumed the standard Vietnamese humility posture — holding both hands near his face as if praying, then moving them up and down in supplication. He smiled, with the few teeth he had left and started speaking in rapid Vietnamese using the words “Bac si” (doctor), so at least I knew he was looking for me. As he continued his monologue he became more and more animated, pointing at the sky and making a “whoosh” sound.
I motioned for him to stop and yelled for Balls, our interpreter, to find out what the old guy wanted. Balls appeared at my side, began jabbering away at the old man and then started laughing. When he calmed down, Balls explained the man’s problem. He had been sound asleep in his bed the previous night when suddenly he heard a strange noise that he described as a, “Whoop, whoop, whoop, thud!”
Then he heard the strange sound again, only this time whatever it was crashed through the roof of his house and struck him on the leg. At that point I noticed he had a dirty old rag wrapped around his left lower leg. The strange sound, one we heard all the time, was the eerie “whoop” of an artillery illumination canister as it falls from the sky. The open end of the canister makes the sound as it tumbles through the air, like blowing across the open end of a Coke bottle.
On finding the cause of his problem, I felt a little guilty since we were the ones who had called for the illumination the night before. My underused, sense of compassion kicked in as I sat the old man down and unwrapped the filthy rag from his leg. I found he had a two-inch avulsion of his peroneus longis muscle, which runs down the lower leg next to the shin. The muscle wasn’t completely severed, but a large chunk was missing and there was a gaping hole where it used to be. I needed to treat this very seriously since the blood supply was probably crushed, he was older than the Great Wall, and he would be working in the rice paddies fertilized with feces.
After a few minutes of thought and rummaging around in my med bag, I found something I thought would work. I washed out the wound with peroxide, then packed it with nitrofurantoin gauze (gauze packing impregnated with an antibiotic/Vaseline mixture). The antibiotic would help to keep him from getting infected and the Vaseline would help to keep the water out of the wound.
Satisfied with the plan, I wrapped the area with gauze and sternly told him to “Lai dai, ngay mai” (come back tomorrow). He nodded furiously, shook my hand with both of his and hobbled out of sight. I remember thinking, “That’s the last we’ll see of him.” As usual, I was wrong.
For the next two to three weeks, the old man showed up faithfully every morning at about the same time. I would clean the wound and repack it with gauze and wrap it. Over the course of time, I could actually see healthy tissue beginning to fill the gouge in his leg. I even began to look forward to his toothless smile and thankful attitude, until one day I was able to look at his leg and say “Fini!” meaning it was healed and we were done. He left that day and I never saw him again.
I still think about him once in a while, since he was one of the truly good memories of Vietnam. I had actually made a difference in his life and repaired some of the damage caused by war. I also have to laugh about the fact that regardless of the shenanigans and tricks we employed to never be in the same place twice, move before sunrise, and disguise our location, he always knew where to find me. Go figure!