At our ER, we have a pretty huge geriatric population. We are the only hospital in the county of any reasonable size, so we get most of the nursing home traffic, and I guess that there are a lot of old people out there living in our catchment area. It's a mixed blessing -- lots of interesting pathology, but often challenging and not always in a good way. One happy consequence, however, is that I see a lot of World War II vets.
I am not unusual among males of my age group in that I am a huge WWII buff. I have avidly consumed histories of the "Last Good War," watched "Band of Brothers" and made countless models of Spitfires and Mustangs. But I have never had the pleasure of personally knowing anyone who actually served in the war.
So, when I note that I am interviewing someone who is of an age that they might have seen service, I make it a point to inquire whether they served. It's a little off topic, so I slip the question into the social history. Usually, the patient will let me know whether it is a topic they feel comfortable discussing. With surprising frequency, they seem almost eager to talk about it. I've been lucky enough to hear some pretty cool stories. This is one of the few things I'm willing to sit down and "waste time" on when the ED is going to hell around me. Frankly, the vets seem pretty gratified that I thought of it and cared enough to ask and listen.
There was one guy the other day whose knee was swollen and bothering him. He told me how he was on a destroyer in the Leyte Gulf, and he was up on the observation mast and saw a Japanese sub surface and fire a torpedo at them. He sounded the alert, and his skipper executed a hard turn away from the torpedo, causing it to miss. But the evasive maneuver caused them to run hard onto a reef, and the shock threw my patient off the mast, and he wrenched his knee badly landing on the deck. The destroyer was undamaged, the submarine got away, and my patient was evacuated for medical care. His ship went down in a hurricane while he was in the hospital and his knee bothered him off and on for the rest of his life.
There was another guy recently who answered in the affirmative when I asked whether he had served in WWII. I asked which branch of the service he had been in and there was a pause before he replied almost apologetically, "Well, you see, I was in the Wehrmacht."
I didn't ask him any more questions.
Originally posted 10 January 2007