BLOOD ON CHINA BEACH – My Time as a Brain Surgeon in Vietnam. By Paul J. Pitlyk. Published 2012 by IUniverse, Monee IL. 238 pages.
“I would remind you again how large and various was the experience of the battlefield and how fertile the blood of warriors in rearing good surgeons.” – Sir Clifford Allbutt
- by Michael Pierce
Paul Pitlyk was 32 years old when he completed his neurosurgery residency at the Mayo Clinic and eventually decided to join the United States Navy. His colleagues thought him insane to give up the possibility of a lucrative practice in the states, but Paul felt another calling. He wanted to serve his country, as many others in his family had done, so he decided to work as a brain surgeon in Vietnam.
Pitlyk began his year in country at Charlie Med, a combat hospital near Da Nang. Situated in a sandy area bordered by rice paddies, conditions at Charlie Med were rough. Worst of all was the lack of proper equipment and instruments necessary to perform neurosurgery. Doctors did the best they could with what they had. After about 10 weeks at this place, Pitlyk was moved to the combat hospital at China Beach.
Conditions at China Beach were better, and the young neurosurgeon had the support of his commanding officer and the hospital supply officers he worked with. The flow of wounded Marines, brought to the hospital mostly by Huey helicopters, was consistent, with the occasional lull of 24 hours or so.
Paul found himself engaging in quite a bit of self-reflection during his time in Vietnam. Why did he come here? Why was he still telling his parents he was stationed in Hawaii? What kind of life was he sending the Marines he saved home to? Why does the noise, the chaos, the violence that worried me, when I first arrived in Vietnam, no longer bother me? Why can’t I get the pictures of these seriously wounded Marines out of my mind? What will my life be like after I leave here?
And then it was over. After a year in Vietnam he returned to the states, serving the remainder of his two year hitch in San Diego.
Paul Pitlyk has given us a very thoughtful, and thought provoking, memoir of a surgeon in a war zone. He writes of the changes his year in Vietnam brought him, and the changes that may have happened to some of the young Marines he operated on, and to some of the teenage Navy corpsmen and other surgeons he worked with. He takes us inside the brains of his patients, while taking us inside his own mind. Blood on China Beach tells one man’s story of a time in history that affected all of us.