Dr. Tony DiBartolomeo
Love Transcends War
Ellis DiBartolomeo was
the head nurse on Wards 9 & 10 at the 24th Evacuation Hospital
in 1968 after coming from the 29th Evacuation Hospital.
A seven part series on the Vietnam War. Seven veterans who served in Vietnam and seven female correspondents who wrote about it recall their impressions and roles in the war.
Love Transcends War
Pair doctored to soldiers, civilians, too
By John Wilfong
Amid the carnage of the Vietnam War, a Morgantown couple fought to maintain a semblance of humanity and compassion, not only for American soldiers wounded in battle, but also for civilian casualties.
Dr. Tony DiBartolomeo and his wife, Deanna, both marked off 365 days in South Vietnam from 1968-1969: him serving as a surgeon in a civilian hospital treating refugees, her as an Army nurse, watching daily as hundreds of American boys arrived, wounded an d bloody.
Deanna DiBartolomeo, then 27-year-old Deanna Ellis, landed in South Vietnam in May 1968, on the heels of the Tet Offensive, even then a witness to the multitude of casualties from the months-old battles across the country.
A captain pediatrician-specialist nurse, Deanna preferred to work in a military hospital, where she would pull 12-hour shifts, six days a week, soon hating the number of mutilated young men passing through her ward.
"Because of the fantastic medi-vac system, guys that would have died in other wars were saved," she said. "The majority of the boys were 18 years old, boys that lost all four limbs. I thought, 'What are they going to go back to?'"
Deanna cautiously recalled a young Australian man who arrived with both legs blown off from the knees down. The crippled man kept his spirits surprisingly high in the face of despair as Deanna lamented his loss, trying to console him.
"He just says, 'Oh well. It doesn't matter, I usually end up crawling home most of the time anyway,'" she imitated with an Australian accent.
Now, more than 30 years later, the 58-year-old Deanna still wonders if an amputee she sees on the street is a veteran she may have treated.
Stationed in a military hospital in the delta region of then southern South Vietnam, Deanna had medical luxuries afforded by many American hospitals -- in great contrast to the civilian hospital near the Cambodian border Tony found himself in charge of.
An earthen building -- with no running water and a French latrine next to the operating room -- the humble hospital Tony worked from to rescue civilians caught between American and Viet Cong crossfire, along with the native Montagnard villagers displaced by the fighting, was much less than adequate.
"I did the best I could," he said. "These were amazingly tough people. Fortunately, I had a sergeant that knew how to do everything when I first got there. And fortunately, I knew to let him do it."
He had been in the Army for only a year before being promoted to captain, in charge of the small hospital treating the 40,000-person Song Be Province. Tony often took advantage of his monthly trips south to visit Deanna by loading his pockets with much-needed supplies.
The hospital's only semblance to a stateside institution was the skilled doctors inside, he said. Sterilized facilities just didn't exist. His meticulous, 10-minute pre-op scrub, followed by a rinse from a 50-gallon water jug for his first surgery provided a valuable lesson.
"After all that scrubbing I looked down, and in my hands was a malaria larva," he said with a slight chuckle. "I quickly learned I didn't have to worry about doing that anymore."
Many children injured from playing with munitions found in the countryside were carried into the shabby hospital, as well, but Tony also treated the extremely malnourished who were already sick with malaria, tuberculosis or leprosy, only to be frustrated by the limits of his help.
"For TB or malaria, you have to take medicine for months or years," he said. "The most good we could do was to give them immunizations."
Still in harm's way
Though somewhat secure as medical units, the DiBartolomeos weren't free from the constant barrage of war. Upon arrival, Deanna's unit was ordered to set up the 29th Evac Hospital where one did not exist.
"When we first went, there was no perimeter, no fences," she said. "The medics had to walk guard. You'd see the tracers shooting through the dark."
The hospital she eventually transferred to often received fire, possibly unintentionally, she said, because it was stationed between Navy and Army air bases. Tony's civilian hospital, which he eventually built up with salvaged modern facilities, was closer to danger near the border and a lack of military protection.
"It was dangerous where I was," he said. "It seems odd, but you'd get used to being shot at. But you didn't go to school for your 29th year to get your butt shot off in some God-forsaken country."
His hospital also received regular mortar fire nightly, "just enough to make sure you didn't get a good night's rest."
Can't stop life for war
The couple had met at Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington, D.C., during internships before leaving for the war. Neither the miles that separated them nor the war's reality would curtail their love. Tony managed a monthly helicopter flight to visit Deanna , often assisting her during her marathon shift.
"As soon as I got enough money to buy a ring at the PX, we got engaged," he said.
Until that point, Deanna said, they were unofficially engaged, with her friends joking about her not having a ring. "But that happened a lot," she said. "There were many romances during that time. It was just another thing to help you deal with the situation."
That same circle of friends, coupled with the intense workload, which she compares to the television show "ER" -- "but everyday, all day" -- allowed her to cope with the situation.
And they didn't work 24 hours a day, either. She said many long-lasting friendships were formed from the many parties and beers they would share during down time.
"We were all young people at that time, and young people will make the best of any situation," she said. "Plus, we knew when our coming-home day was. Everyone had a big calendar marking off until you'd return home."
Tony still keeps his picture of a dancing Snoopy with all but three of 365 blocks colored.
"You knew there was an end in sight," he said. "Also, you were busy. You didn't have time to think about how horrible it really was."
Out of the horrors that greeted her daily, Deanna said a rare beam of hope arrived one day in the form of a little girl -- the skin on her arm peeled off by an accident with an American jeep. She remembers her name, Bui, and the relief she brought with her.
Bui lived with the medics for four months, undergoing skin grafts.
"She became like everyone's child," she said. "It was a child and it put a different face on the war."
365 days are up
Deanna arrived back in the states three months before her soon-to-be husband. Neither -- as was the case with many veterans -- had any time to properly make the transition from the gore to their old lives.
"You'd leave Vietnam on Tuesday and be in California on Wednesday," Tony said. "It wasn't what you envisioned with a parade or a 'Welcome Home' sign, but you were home."
The quick transition wasn't easy for anyone and served as a precursor for many of the problems experienced by veterans, he said.
"It takes a long time to come down from a situation like that," he said. "It took a while before you felt secure again."
After a year of being home, Tony recalled hearing a car backfire and him diving to the floor of his apartment, covering his head.
Regardless, two weeks after he left the horrors of Vietnam, Tony and Deanna were married. They now have a 29-year-old daughter, Lisa, who teaches Russian at WVU, and a son, David, 27, working in public administration with West Virginia United Hospital System in Fairmont.
Tony is the acting chair of pathology at WVU Medical School and serves as associate dean for clinical services. He is section chief of rheumatology.
Deanna is board president for the Morgantown Community Kitchen.
"I grew up professionally there," Tony recalled. "I had spent all of my time training in a fairly sheltered environment. There was always someone to ask for the right answer when you didn't know it. Then all of a sudden, you're put in charge where you're expected to know the answer.
"I had to quickly learn how to make decisions. There wasn't time to dither."
He admits that he gained from the war, but wishes he hadn't had to experience the war to do so.
"It wasn't worth it," he said. "But that doesn't necessarily mean you didn't get something out of it. Even more, it wasn't worth it for those who came back in bags or missing a part of their body. War's probably never worth it."
His father, a World War II veteran, often attempted to shield his son from the experience of war, sharing the same feelings Tony harbors for his children, hoping they never see war.
"My father once told me, 'If you take profit out of war, there wouldn't be any,'" he said. "Now, I think he was right."
Updated: July 29, 2003