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Good Anesthesia in a War Zone

The Story of the 1st Navy Nurse Anesthetist in Vietnam

Twenty-four hours—the amount of time the military gave many of those bound for Vietnam to detach from their units, including five Navy nurses ordered to report in September 1963. The five boarded a shiny, new 707 aircraft on their way to join two more Navy nurses already in the foreign land that would become their home for the next year. A day later and in the midst of a sea of Army men, the five stepped off into the dizzying heat and relentless humidity of Saigon—a place where the “enemy didn’t wear a uniform”1 and “urban terrorism”2 redefined—or perhaps blurred—the battle lines of war. Enduring a stifling, jungle-like climate and facing challenges of being a Navy nurse in Vietnam was an experience that would come to be known to only a handful of women. Among them was one who was a rarity even among this elite group: Then-LCDR Owedia “Tweedie” Searcy was the first—and at that time the only—Navy nurse anesthetist to serve in Vietnam.

Civilian Start to an Anesthesia Specialty

Some 20 years before her tour in Vietnam, Searcy—a Venus, TX, native—completed her civilian nurse’s training under the instruction of nuns at St. Joseph’s Hospital, the oldest hospital in Fort Worth, TX. Nearing the end of her training, she decided she would either pursue a specialty in anesthesia or physical therapy. The acceptance letter for anesthesia training arrived first, so the daughter of a WWI Marine veteran took the offer and never looked back. She enrolled at anesthesia school at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, MO, (now called Barnes Jewish Hospital), and trained for eight months.

A brand new nurse anesthetist, Searcy returned to St. Joseph’s to work, but it lasted only a short time.

“… I got mad at one of the nuns one day and joined the Navy,” Searcy says with a laugh. “I [had] wanted to go into the military and then I decided that I didn’t like Army uniforms—I liked the Navy ones better.”

Joining the Navy
That was 1948; and the fiery Texan began her naval odyssey across the continental United States and around the globe, accumulating skills and experience that would prepare her for later years.

“[The Navy] always tried to make sure we went from a [large] hospital to a small hospital,” says the Women’s Memorial Charter Member.

Searcy says that new drugs and techniques would come first into larger hospitals, so the Navy would rotate nurses from large hospitals to small in order to introduce them to new medical technologies and skills. She went on to say that her experience in the varying hospital environments in the Navy prepared her well for Vietnam, where the Navy’s new hospital would likely be makeshift, at best.

Heading to a War Zone
The new hospital, U.S. Naval Station Hospital Saigon, was a former apartment building converted into a 100-bed inpatient hospital and was, at that time, the Navy’s only hospital in Vietnam.3 Realizing that her new post would probably lack necessary equipment and supplies needed for the job, the then-40-year-old Searcy took no chances; she went prepared.

“I filled a footlocker full of anesthesia equipment and supplies to take with me because I knew that it was a new hospital,” says Searcy. “I had to have all these things when I got there—I couldn’t wait for three months for something to come in.”

When she arrived in Vietnam, Searcy was in charge of the operating room and anesthesia at the new hospital. Often, she was the first person to see soldiers and civilians coming in from bomb explosions, military coups, and Viet Cong terrorist attacks, sometimes occurring not too far from the hospital. At one point, she saw 57 mass casualties enter “one by one” into her operating room, some needing amputations or other major surgeries.

Giving “Good Anesthesia
Her training and experience, however, gave her the confidence to do her job, even in a war zone.

“I knew what I had to do; and I gave them good anesthesia,” says Searcy. “They had to have the best of everything because they deserved it and we could give it to ‘em.”

As a nurse focused on the wellbeing of the wounded, Searcy says she took good care of her patients and she even kept a book with names of every patient to whom she gave anesthesia. She recalls administering anesthesia to Vietnamese Prime Minister General Khanh’s daughter. According to Searcy, giving anesthesia to this “little girl … was something extra special” in that it was a small symbol of reconciliation for both nations.

Vietnam: A Shared Experience
Like so many others who served in Vietnam, Searcy’s experience was personal, but also shared. She performed a specialized job that was integral to the operations of Station Hospital Saigon—a facility that saw more than 6,000 inpatients and 130,000 outpatients during its two and one-half years in operation.4She did it for the good of her country, for the good of the world; but she was not alone.

“It was something that I could do [to] help, with all these other people,” Searcy says. “I got a good feeling out of it. I did a good job.”

For the Navy’s first nurse anesthetist in Vietnam, remembering her time in Vietnam always comes back to one simple fact that she can also feel good about: “Whenever [the wounded] came, we had to be there.” And they were.

By Mary R. Nichols

For her service in Vietnam, CDR Searcy was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

For further reading about military women’s service in Vietnam and the Navy Nurse Corps, check out our bibliography page, A Few Good Reads—A Short Bibliography on Vietnam and Navy Nursing.


About the Author

Mary Nichols was a Women’s Memorial Foundation volunteer during Summer 2014. She is currently a sophomore at The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, majoring in psychology. Her personal interest in American History and Military Women’s History led her to seek this three-month volunteer position with the Foundation.


Notes
1Hovis, Bobbi, Lt. Commander, U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, (Ret.). Station Hospital Saigon: A Navy Nurse in Vietnam 1963-1964. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1992, 8.

2Hovis, 8.

3Herman, Jan. Navy Medicine in Vietnam: Passage to Freedom to the Fall of Saigon, Washington, DC: Naval History & Heritage Command, 2010, 5.

4Ibach, Maryanne Gallagher, RADM, USNR. “Memories of Navy Nursing: The Vietnam Era,” www.vietnamwomensmemorial.org/pdf/magallager.pdf.

Excerpts in this Oral History Highlight are taken from the LCDR Owedia Searcy, NC USN (Ret.) interview by Margaret Reborchick, October 18, 2007,; LCDR Owedia Searcy, NC USN (Ret.) Collection, Women’s Memorial Foundation Oral History Collection, Women’s Memorial Foundation, Arlington, VA.


Related Stories
Factoids—US Naval Station Saigon Hospital
A Few Good Reads—A Short Bibliography on Vietnam and Navy Nursing
Military Women’s Service in Vietnam Article
Era of Conflict, Vietnam War 1964-1975 Women’s Memorial Exhibit
African-American Servicewomen in Vietnam Article
Oral History Highlight Archive


If you are, or know of, a servicewoman, past or present, who wishes to conduct an oral history interview, please contact Robbie Fee at the Women’s Memorial Foundation at oralhistory@womensmemorial.org or call 703-533-1155/800-222-2294.

(August 2014)