At the end of his residency at the Mayo Clinic, Paul Pitlyk was not filled with the confidence he thought a neurosurgeon should have, even though he had five intensive years of experience and training.
He joined a growing practice in Wisconsin, bought a convertible and appeared every bit the successful young doctor. But the feelings of doubt persisted — along with a feeling that he should be doing this work somewhere else.
In the mid-1960s, U.S. activities in Vietnam were beginning to dominate the headlines. Pitlyk’s three older brothers had served in World War II, and his father, suggesting that the true way to his heart was through military service, pointed at a wall hung with photos of his other sons in uniform. “Paul, do you ever think you’ll be good enough to be on this wall?” he asked. Subtle.
So one day, Pitlyk called the Navy recruiting office and asked to be assigned to a position “with maximum need and excitement with no particular regard to location.”
“Are you for real?” the recruiter responded. He was.
Nearly a half-century later, Pitlyk recounted his service as a neurosurgeon in a Vietnam medical tent. Afterward, a member of the audio-visual crew came up to him and said he “just witnessed a slice of American history,” Pitlyk says. “He went on to say that I should not let it die with me.”
The memories of those days remain intense for the doctor, so he decided to tell the story.
“Blood in China Beach: My Story as a Brain Surgeon in Vietnam” (iUniverse) explains exactly what maximum need and excitement entailed, as Pitlyk and his colleagues performed surgery on an endless line of traumatically injured soldiers under very minimalist conditions.
Every day tested the doctor’s skills, judgment and creativity as he did his best to save the young men who passed through the “Charlie Med” tent.
Pitlyk writes in unflinching detail about “the horror of vibrant young Marines turned into raw meat” and the heroics required to deal with the work and its emotional aftermath. Many young men did not make it out alive. Others were sent home grievously, permanently altered, leading Pitlyk to ponder the many moral dilemmas involved in wartime medicine.
But despite its considerable difficulties — and often because of them — Pitlyk found he loved the work. The hard part was going home.
“I returned to private practice after I completed my Navy requirement only because the Navy had drafted many doctors with different specialties. We had seven neurosurgeons at my location while only three were needed. Had this not been the case, I would have stayed in beyond my obligation,” he says. “Private practice has never provided me with the personal gratification I engendered in Vietnam.”
Upon his return, Pitlyk found it difficult to reorient to a modern, peacetime surgery practice. “I had grown accustomed to crude surroundings and the setting in Vietnam and, in a sense, longed for it,” he said.
He almost had the chance to revisit that level of intensity.
In 1991, Pitlyk was called back into the Navy for the purpose of going to the “Desert Storm” conflict in Middle East. “I was sent to the Marine base in California in preparation for transfer via air. However, the war ended in a few days, and I was returned to civilian life.”
To fill the void that lingered after his experiences in Vietnam, Pitlyk later joined a volunteer medical organization called the Flying Samaritans, a group of doctors who traveled to Baja, Calif., to evaluate and treat indigent Mexican people with poor access to medical care.
But Vietnam remained the most vital moment in the doctor’s career. “Never again would I be chosen to stand between so many injured people and a graveyard,” he said. “I never again felt as needed.”