Minh Quy Hospital

Minh Quy Hospital was frequently called “Pat Smith’s Hospital”, referring to Patricia M. Smith, an American physician who began the hospital in 1959. The hospital focus was to provide inpatient and outpatient medical care for all ethnic minorities of Kontum Province.

Beginning in the early 1960’s, the hospital operated from its primary site in the village of Kon Monay Xolam, several kilometers outside of Kontum town. In 1968, after invasion by Viet Cong forces, the hospital was moved into a school building in the town. During the 1972 "Easter Offensive", Minh Quy moved about half of patients, staff and families to Pleiku, operating in both locations for about 5 months before reconsolidating in Kontum. In late 1973, the entire hospital moved back to Kon Monay Xolam. After the fall of the Saigon government in April, 1975, Minh Quy Hospital ceased to exist.

Minh Quy’s funding was always uncertain. The Catholic church was a major source of support – through both the Archdiocese of Kontum (a French mission) and through Catholic Relief Services (a US-based charity). Additional support came from other religious and secular charities world-wide. International staff had support from a variety of sources, though many were self-funded. The US military provided generous in-kind support, especially as the US presence in Vietnam declined sharply beginning in 1971.

The principal language spoken at Minh Quy was Bahnar. French, English, Vietnamese and Sedang were commonly heard as well, and usually some bilingual staff person could bridge communication between these and other dialects. Most international staff staying more than a few months developed reasonable fluency in Bahnar.

Most patients came from the principal tribal settlements within a day’s travel of Kontum. During 1971-73, Minh Quy staff cared daily for roughly 100 inpatients and a lesser number of “walking wounded” – patients not requiring a bed but still requiring hospital-based medicines or dressings. In addition, 150 to 200 outpatients arrived for outpatient care at the afternoon clinics held each weekday.

About half of those arriving for care were children. Patients presented with a variety of afflictions, predominantly trauma and infectious disease. Diarrheal disease, pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria, meningitis and plague were all common. Although surgical facilities were limited, Minh Quy did undertake cesarean sections and other emergency procedures when necessary. Surgical activity greatly increased whenever a visiting surgeon happened to pass through.

Few of the Montagnard staff had more than a sixth grade education. All had their clinical training at Minh Quy, although a rare few were able to travel for specialized courses elsewhere. Seven catholic nuns formed the backbone of the local staff, a payroll of about 100 persons. Most of the staff had begun as cleaners, rising into roles of greater clinical direction and responsibility as they demonstrated skill and reliability.

International staff during the 1971-73 period averaged approximately 1-3 physicians, 3-5 nurses, 1 nurse-midwife and 1 medical technologist. One physician’s assistant developed and ran the village health worker program. In addition, one international staff member oversaw logistics and maintenance and another focused on administration. Minh Quy staff during this time included citizens of the US, Australia, Switzerland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, India, South Korea and West Germany. All were highly motivated individuals, each with his/her own reasons for being there. Most staff lived in the same house, taking all meals together. Although there was occasional conflict, there was a high degree of mutual respect for the professionalism and commitment of fellow staff members.

Minh Quy had many visitors. Those with particular skills were quickly put to work. Those with limited skill or questionable judgment were usually promptly detected by Montagnard staff and relegated to less critical activities.

As a hospital, Minh Quy had significant limitations. Electrical power was available most mornings, but evening darkness required kerosene lamps. Xrays could be taken in the morning, but staff had to fire up a generator for emergency radiographs at other times. The converted school building used from 1968 to late 1973 had limited running water. The operating room did have an autoclave for sterilization, but hand washing for surgery was done with specially filtered water. Laboratory services were extremely limited. Trained Montagnard staff performed microscopy for blood smears, urine sediments and gram stains. No cultures were available. The lab did have centrifuge equipment. Chemistries were limited to dipstick technology. Pharmacy supplies in 1971-73 were generously supplemented by donations from departing US military units. Some specialized medications came from donations abroad brought in by visitors, assuming the valuable cargo was not confiscated by "overzealous" agents at customs in Saigon.

American soldiers helped whenever possible and often when the task was “not possible.” Within their belief systems, most Montagnards were terrified of donating blood. Willing American GIs were always available. As necessary, the military kept Minh Quy informed of changes in the security situation. During the 1971-73 period, Minh Quy frequently was able to radio in for a helicopter to evacuate critically injured patients to the 67th Evac US Army hospital in Pleiku. Scrounging for medications and equipment became an art form, and some of the Western staff became very good at it.

Minh Quy seemed to offer a touch of humanity within a brutal and discouraging environment.

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