- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 3, 2000

The closest many people have come to seeing medicine practiced in wartime is the TV show "M*A*S*H," in which doctors were apt to be dropping one-liners while manipulating surgical tools.
In reality, there was little to joke about while trying to save lives during the Korean War (1950-53). Doctors performed surgery in crude conditions in mobile hospitals and had to contend with extreme weather and exotic diseases.
The challenges those doctors and nurses faced are chronicled in a new exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine titled "Blood, Sweat and Saline: Combat Medicine in the Korean Conflict." The exhibit opened in June, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the start of the war, and will run through next June.
"Television cannot accurately depict the reality of wartime medicine," museum spokeswoman Erin Roy says. "As a result, the story remains untold."
It was tough even to find the medical personnel to go to Korea. When the United States sent troops in 1950, it was just five years after the end of World War II, and the military had been downsized. The U.S. troops found themselves in need of more than 700 doctors.
Dr. Richard Mulvaney, a retired McLean physician, was a new doctor when he enlisted in 1951. He says the exhibit "brings back a lot of emotion" he felt caring for the sick and wounded near the front lines in Korea for more than a year.
Dr. Mulvaney, who was a captain in the 7th Infantry Division, worked at an aid station and at times was 100 to 400 feet from the battlefield. He had to make fast decisions as to who had the worst injuries and needed the most attention.
The exhibit gives an accurate picture of how triage (the high-pressure process of deciding who needed the quickest medical attention) at the six MASH units worked, Dr. Mulvaney says.
"One thing, MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and they did do surgery there," he says. "But by the second year of the war, we were pretty much stationary. We waited for casualties."
The exhibit details what soldiers wore, including experimental protective vests made of high-density Fiberglas. On display is a model of a heart with shrapnel lodged in various locations to show how grave an injury would have been without the vest.
The vests also helped the men stay warm as temperatures in the winter of 1950-51 ranged from 20 degrees to minus 30 degrees. More than 5,000 soldiers were victims of frostbite. The exhibit has a model of a frostbitten foot, a typical injury after soldiers walked in cold, wet boots.
Doctors in Korea also had to contend with a mysterious medical enemy epidemic hemorrhagic fever. The disease presented symptoms similar to malaria, including a high fever and dehydration. Doctors treated the dehydration, of course, by giving soldiers fluids. Later, they realized that the virus affected kidney function, and the best way to relieve it was to restrict fluids. Once they made that discovery, the fatality rate dropped from 20 percent to 5 percent.
The exhibit devotes a large portion to epidemic hemorrhagic fever, including a display of a diseased kidney and a journal written by a young man suffering from the disease.
"I wouldn't say it was rampant," Dr. Mulvaney says, "but it was something we had to contend with. There were enough cases at first that we had to devote an entire MASH unit to it."
Another portion of the exhibit details medical advances that began during the war. One such breakthrough was an artificial kidney machine. Six of the machines were in use in Korea and saved the lives of many soldiers with kidney injuries.
After the war, the knowledge gained from using those machines was put to use to create dialysis, which today is an often-lifesaving treatment for those with kidney disease.
The display also explains how repairing the blood vessels and muscles of wounded soldiers in Korea led to breakthroughs in vascular surgery.
"Improvements in medicine are the one good thing to come out of war," Dr. Mulvaney says.
"Blood, Sweat and Saline: Combat Medicine in the Korean Conflict" is on exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 6900 Georgia Ave. NW. The museum is open daily except Christmas from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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