A North Vietnamese Doctor Remembers His Experience in a Jungle Hospital

From 1966-1974 Le Cao Dai directed the largest North Vietnamese jungle hospital in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. His staff of four hundred routinely cared for more than a thousands patients. Every few months they had to move all patients and supplies and rebuild in a new location to avoid detection by American and South Vietnamese forces. Here he remembers how he and his staff operated in primitive conditions under hostile fire, often foraging for supplies amongst discarded American equipment.

Initially, we set up our hospital close to the place where the borders of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos meet.  But it was too far from the front lines so after about six months we had to move closer. It was the first of many moves during the war. We always sought a location that was in triple-canopy jungle where there were three layers of leaves. Even in the middle of the day the sun couldn't shine through. But the Americans launched innumerable chemical spraying to defoliate the jungle. As soon as they sprayed nearby I'd give the order to being moving the hospital. Even so, we were sometimes spotted by U.S. helicopters or observation planes and then the B-52s would inevitably attack that very night.

There was a shortage of everything. Most of our equipment had been destroyed, lost, or damaged on our journey south. Probably only ten percent arrived and some of that was defective or incomplete. For example, the X-ray equipment arrived safely but we lost the protective lead apron. We didn't even have scalpels or other surgical instruments. We fashioned our own out of used scrap metal from unexploded American bombs and shell casings or pieces of aluminum from planes that had been shot down. We even made intravenous tubes from the rubber insulation we found around electrical wires on American aircraft. So the American provided us with many of our supplies.

At first I tried to set up a small hydroelectric system to provide power for the hospital but it got washed away during flooding. Our most reliable source of power was the bicycle-powered generator. Someone had to keep pedaling so I could have light for my operating table. Sometimes I operated all night while the staff took turns pedaling the bicycle.

…Believe it or not, our mortality rate for wounded patients was lower than it was hospitals in Hanoi. The only way to account for this is to assume that most of our severely wounded people died at the front before they could be carried to our field hospital. One of our biggest problems was postoperative infection. At first we closed all wounds after surgery, but we found they frequently got infected. We had better results leaving wounds open. The same for arterial wounds. When we tried to sew the artery it invariable got infected. We found it better to close both ends of the damaged artery and leave the wound open. Trying this led to a very interesting discovery. We found that our soldiers had done so much walking and gotten so much exercise they had developed new arteries known as "collaterals." So when we closed off a main artery these new arteries still provided enough blood to the wounded area to ward off infection…

Source | Christian G. Appy, ed., Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (New York: Penguin Books, 2003) 138-141.
Interviewer | Christian G. Appy
Interviewee | Le Cao Dai
Rights | Used by permission of Chris Appy. For on-line information about other Penguin Group (USA) books and authors, see the Internet website at: http://www.penguin.com.
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “A North Vietnamese Doctor Remembers His Experience in a Jungle Hospital,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 30, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/981.