Wednesday, May 3, 1972

Doc Grandma Plots Return to Highlands

Note: Dr. Pat Smith died on December 26, 2005, at age 78. A copy of her obituary is available here.

SAIGON (AP) --The big grandmother of medicine is busting to get back to the highlands of Vietnam, and it may take more than an enemy offensive and a French bishop to stop her.

"There's no hope for Kontum, or I wouldn't have left," said Pat Smith, the American woman doctor who was evacuated last week from the hospital she founded for Montagnard tribesmen. "But maybe I can fly to Pleiku and helicopter up in the daylight hours."

The indomitable, blunt-talking woman the Montagnards call "ya pogang tih"-big grandmother of medicine -sat on the step of Catholic Relief Services plotting her return to the war zone, where she has experienced 13 years of terror, disease, squalor, frustration and triumph.

"Two weeks ago," she recalled, "the bishop said he had a surplus of 800 enrolling in the schools and it was all my fault because Montagnard child mortality had dropped from 75 per cent to almost zero in the villages served by the hospital."

Beside her in the dirt, Det, 5, and Wir, 3, her adopted Montagnard war orphans, played at building a helicopter landing zone.

"I hate this war," said Dr. Pat. "I've grown so tired of it, but I love those people."

She narrowly escaped death in March, 1968, just after the Tet offensive, when North Vietnamese troops invaded Minh Quy Hospital, shot up the labs and X-ray room and captured Renata Kuhnen, her German nurse. A human blanket of more than 30 Montagnard staff and patients lay on top of the doctor and hid her, while enemy troops ran through the wards tossing grenades, shooting women and children in the legs and demanding, "where are the Americans?"

After four years of rebuilding, putting in new labs, a kitchen and a laundry, Dr. Pat was getting ready to move her 87-bed hospital out of a borrowed school house back to the original grounds when the current enemy offensive erupted.

Trouble had been building all week, as the clipboard in the emergency ward showed: Resettlement villages overrun, a boy shot in the stomach while fishing, two girls killed and another wounded when an enemy patrol raked them bathing in a stream. On Sunday a mortar shell exploded near the church, wounding a number of children coming out of Mass. By Tuesday a fire base to the west was overrun, the road north was cut and the airport was under constant shelling.

"You must go," Msgr. Paul Seitz, the last French bishop left in Vietnam told her. "Kontum is lost. They will kill every American here. I am a French citizen. It will be different for me."

Gathering up Det, whose mother has been killed by Viet Cong, and Wir, abandoned in a burned out village. Dr. Pat turned the hospital over to Sister Gabriel, her most experienced Montagnard nurse, and boarded the helicopter on the lawn.

Shells were lobbing into the Kontum airport and a plane and truck were on fire, when the chopper sat down to refuel. The doctor's dilemma made the full Vietnamese circle when refugees stormed aboard the plane she changed to at Pleiku and swiped the suitcase containing the children's clothing and Det's adoption papers.

The dedicated humanitarian, who learned surgery at the operating table with the help of a textbook and any American doctors available to help out, had a few non-humanitarian things to say on that subject.

"Now besides getting up to the hospital when I can, my main concern is to get pass-ports and visas for stinker-poo here," she said patting Wir's bristly crewcut, "and his brother, so I can get them out of the country to the United States."

Home for them, for a while anyway, will be Seattle, where Pat Smith went to medical and where a loyal group of supporters called the Kontum Hospital Fund provides most of her financial backing.

Home for her will always be Kontum, although she doubts it ever will be retaken if it falls.

A big raw-boned woman, who declines to give her age but is never afraid to speak her mind about the enemy, the government or church bureaucrats, she believes South Vietnam missed its chance to pacify the highlands when it turned down proposals in 1965 for a 59,000 man all Montagnard army with American advisers.

"The tribes said they could have cleared out all the Viet Cong in three weeks," said Dr. Pat. "And they probably could have."

"There hasn't been a voluntary recruit from a Montagnard village to the Communist side in six or seven years. The enemy lost its appeal when it began kidnapping children and exchanging them for men in the village to act as porters and learn fighting. Now terror is the whole purpose of attacks on villages: just to show the government can't protect the people. And it's always the resettled villages, those that moved to get to a more secure area. We have one near us that has been hit five times."

"Doc Grandma Plots Return to Highlands", by Saigon (AP), published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes on Wednesday, May 3, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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