In Honor of One Very Special Nurse
By Lisa Reichard, RN
As nurses, we are called to work in emergency rooms, school-based clinics, homeless shelters, and even war zones. I recently had the distinct honor and privilege to meet and interview Army Captain Donna Rowe, RN, for Nurse’s Week. Donna entered the US Army in 1964 through the Student Nurse Corps Program (ROTC). She was assigned to Vietnam: 3rd Field Hospital-Saigon as the head nurse in the emergency room/triage area from 1968-1969.
“At times, Vietnam War veterans have been portrayed as dropouts or drug addicts,” said Rowe. “This is far from the truth. They were the best our country had to offer.“ She said, “I have to tell you about the men and women I went to war with before I can tell you my story.“
“My generation instilled in us courage, compassion, and patriotism. When we entered the army, we were taught duty, honor, and love of our country. This is what our parents had already taught us – how to be good Americans. Halfway was not acceptable. Contrary to popular belief, most who served in Vietnam –74%, actually – were volunteers, not draftees. I was an ‘old woman’ when I was there at 25 years old. The average age of those who served in Vietnam was 21. The average age of the men there was 18,” said Rowe.
In Washington, DC, there are 58,267 names on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall. Of these, 33,000 belong to service members who were 18 years old.
“Today, the average age of those serving is 26,” Rowe explained. “We were very young men and women sent to war by a country that, when we came home, hated us. This is why not many vets told their stories.”
Donna then began to pull out photos to share from her scrapbook.
“There were 11,000 women who served in Vietnam, 98% of whom were Army nurses,” said Rowe. “We were ER nurses cross-trained in OR and we worked to cover trauma seven days a week, 365 days a year. Nurses saw the worst. Eight were killed in action. For those who served, families suffered, the sacrifice was great, and the transition was tough coming home. We came home one by one to ridicule. Many were not welcomed back as heroes. They called us baby killers.”
Specialist Darrell Warren, Baby Kathleen, Richard Hock, and Captain Donna Rowe
This is the true story about brave American men and a nurse who saved a baby’s life in the middle of a war.
It was May 15, 1969. Rowe had only 30 days left on her tour of duty. The ER area at her hospital was capable of handling 225 casualties at a time, and averaged 700-900 per day during the height of the Tet Offensive.
In a Viet Cong attack on a village that day, everyone was killed except a baby girl who had been found severely wounded in her dead mother’s arms. The mother had died trying to protect her child.
Rowe received a radio message that eight medevac helicopters were on their way to the hospital, each with at least 10 casualties aboard. ER triage priority status went to US servicemen, then US civilians, allied forces, South Vietnamese troops, and then Vietnamese civilians. (Rowe explained they were not allowed to treat civilians because they had their own hospitals.)
“We were in the offensive mode and supplies were short,” said Rowe. “We worked at a school turned into a hospital in the heart of Saigon. I got a radio call from a pilot saying he needed immediate permission to land because he had a critically wounded infant on board. The chopper had already been turned down by other hospitals and ours was its last hope.”
“I knew right from wrong,” she recalled. “I remembered what my mother said to me as I was leaving my hometown of Sterling, MA, to go to war: ‘Always do the right thing, Donna.’ So I turned to my sergeant with the radio and said, ‘Tell him that the Third Field Hospital will receive them.’” She accepted the baby against standing military policy.
“My sergeant then said, ‘You’re going to take some hell for this, Captain.’ I said, ‘What can they do to us? Send us to the front lines of Vietnam? We are already in hell.’”
”Our ambulance met the Dustoff at the helipad. Her dead mother’s arms had to be broken to release the baby from her tightly wrapped, protective arms. The medic rushed the baby into the ER and told me, ‘Dear God, Captain, this baby is dying on us and they killed everybody in her village.’ The North Vietnamese had wiped out the village.”
Rowe continued, “Specialist Richard Hock, one of my best combat-trained medics, took the baby from the ambulance drivers. He immediately realized the baby was in respiratory distress due to bleeding and fragmentation wounds in her chest and abdomen. We got a breathing tube into her with the smallest tube we had in triage, put a manual breathing bag on it, and Richard took over breathing for this little one until we turned her over to the operating room staff several distressing minutes later.”
“The Triage doctor ordered a full-body screen on her, so we rushed the baby to the X-ray room to locate shrapnel to be removed in surgery. On the way from X-ray to the operating room, I saw Father Luke Sullivan, our Catholic Chaplain, and pulled him into the crowd that was half-running down the hospital corridor. Fearing the baby might die at any moment and knowing that if baptized she would have a place to stay, if she recovered, at the Saint Elizabeth Catholic orphanage, I told him ‘Father, come with us. You have to baptize this baby.’”
“Father Sullivan used water from the sink to sprinkle on her tiny forehead and said, ‘I baptize thee …” he looked at me for a name. A name, a name …. I remembered the Irish song my father sang to me while dancing me across the floor as a child, ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,’ so I blurted out quickly, “Name her Kathleen Fields!’ Kathleen from the Irish ballad and Fields because we were at the 3rd Field Hospital.”
“Father Sullivan stated the baptismal rights then looked around the gurney moving by fast, and said, ‘And your Godparents are Specialist Medic Darrel Warren, Specialist Richard Hock, and Captain Donna Rowe.’ The three of us became Godparents that day, joining with a Catholic priest to help with a tiny bit of God’s work while rushing this baby to life-saving surgery.”
“A few days after Kathleen arrived, three soldiers in combat gear came into the hospital. They asked if the hospital had treated a wounded baby and if it had survived. Rowe directed them to Kathleen’s room, where they visited briefly, then headed out. As they passed me, one of the men said, ‘Thank you.’ Those combat troops did something exceptional and wonderful because they could have kept right on walking. They were compassionate and caring. They were Americans."
“After about two weeks,” Rowe explained, “Kathleen was healthy enough to be transferred to St. Elizabeth’s orphanage.” Rowe told the men to scrounge extra food from the hospital mess to take with the baby to the orphanage. An American Naval officer and his wife then adopted Kathleen.
The Need For Technology
“We had no Internet or electronic health records,” Rowe explained. “I truly wish that each soldier would have had a flash drive on them with all of their medical history and information instead of a dog tag. The reality is that a lot of times, the boys did not want to wear the dog tags around their necks. They did not want them clanking when they were walking by in the brush. We would receive the injured with no ID, medical history, or any information. Hand-held devices to enter patient data from multiple locations would have been very helpful in the battlefield environment.”
Today, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs operate the two largest health systems in the United States. They now use integrated, comprehensive clinical application suites that work together to create a longitudinal view of the veteran’s electronic health record. Deployed medical professionals use these on the front lines to streamline medical logistics and enhance situational awareness for tactical forces, as well as promote continuity of care.
Reunion and Update
Specialist Richard Hock, Kathleen Epps (" Baby Kathleen"), and Captain Donna Rowe
After 34 years, Rowe and her colleagues got to hold their "baby" again. Rowe, Hock, and Kathleen were re-united in April 2003 in Fort Sam Houston, TX. Kathleen had been Googling names on her baptismal certificate hoping to find answers. She finally got to meet Rowe and Hock. It was a truly special and emotional reunion for all. “Baby Kathleen” is now Kathleen Epps. She lives in California with her husband and their four beautiful daughters.
Hock, who was a paramedic in Georgia at the time of his reunion with Rowe and Kathleen, remembered the baby as, “A bright spot in a very bad time. She made all the rest of it bearable. She became a beautiful woman with a beautiful family. It is the great American dream all over again."
Kathleen and Specialist Hock, who passed away a year after their reunion, are featured in “The Kathleen Story” segment of the World Film Festival’s award-winning Vietnam War documentary film, In the Shadow of the Blade. Darrell Warren, formerly of Tucson, Arizona, is still living out west.
Donna received the Vietnam Service Ribbon and Army Commendation Medal. Forty years later, she now travels the country, unpaid, to tell her story. Today, Donna lives with her husband, Colonel (Ret.) Al Rowe, former four-term president of the Georgia Vietnam Veteran’s Alliance. They have two sons. She is a real estate broker in Georgia.
Donna said she would like all to remember that we still have women and men serving in harm’s way – the sons and daughters of the Vietnam vets. “Let’s make sure that these men and women do not come home to a country that hates them or treats them with disrespect of disdain like we had to deal with,” she adds.
Finally, I asked Donna, How we can we show our appreciation for veterans who have served?”
“When you are out and you see a serviceman or service woman in uniform,” she replied, “offer to buy them their meal. Look them in the eye and give them a big thank you for their sacrifice and service to our country.”
Lisa Reichard, RN, BSN is director of business development at Billian’s HealthDATA.