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Vietnam Clinic 50th Anniversary

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Dr. McClure (on the right) representing the Stanford contribution to the Unit

Napa Valley Plastic surgeon Dr. William McClure recently returned from Saigon, Vietnam where he represented Stanford Medical School in a special 50 year wartime anniversary hosted by the Vietnamese government. It was fifty years ago at the height of the Vietnam War that an American plastic surgeon and an American lawyer established a surgical unit in the heart of Saigon to care for children gravely injured during this tragic war. The unit was staffed by intrepid surgeon volunteers. Three of these surgeons, now deceased, haled from Stanford Medical School. These were the surgeons who inspired Dr. McClure to return to Vietnam in 1989 to continue helping children in need of reconstructive surgery.

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Named after the founder, renown Manhattan plastic surgeon, Dr. Arthur Barsky, Jr, the Barsky Unit was the inspiration of Oakland, California attorney Thomas Miller, who in 1966 was a recent Harvard Law school graduate and former Peace Corps volunteer. Poised to begin what would have been a successful and lucrative Manhattan law practice, Mr. Miller read a series of articles in the Manchester Guardian by legendary American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn who reported on the plight of Vietnamese civilians, especially children. In a bold move that changed the trajectory of his life, Mr. Miller decided to help these children. He sought out Dr. Barsky, who by his middle age was a respected New York City plastic surgeon and University professor. Mr. Miller, like many, knew of the doctor’s reputation for helping the under represented. Dr. Barsky had gained fame and notoriety in his younger years when in the late 1930’s he and his brother established a medical aid unit in Spain during the horrendous civil war. The unit served the volunteer American fighters of the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigade who fought the Nazi supported Spanish fascist. In the late 1940’s he brought to New York City a group of young women survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb attack. Called the “Hiroshima Maidens,” he performed reconstructive surgery to repair their burn scar deformities.

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Mr. Miller & Dr. Mills (with beard)

Mr. Miller and Dr. Barsky travelled to Vietnam. This was not an easy feat in a country torn by violent war. With persistence and dogged determination, this unlikely pair overcame logistical and bureaucratic obstacles to establish and fund the unit. They recruited an international team of surgeons, anesthesiologist, nurses and technicians to work together with their Vietnamese counterparts. At considerable financial and physical risk, these volunteers left their comfortable lives to help the innocent victims of war. Among the American volunteers were four San Francisco Bay Area plastic surgeons, three of whom served as clinical professors on the Stanford Medical School faculty. Two of these surgeons were Dr. McClure’s mentors when he was a young surgical resident training at Stanford in the 80’s. One of them, Dr. Robert Mills, was so captivated by the plight of these Vietnamese children that he gave up his San Francisco practice to work at the Barsky Unit indefinitely. In 1975 he was forced to leave and return to Stanford when the Communist forces prevailed and took over Saigon.

Dr. McClure’s other mentor, San Francisco surgeon Dr. Mark Gorney, become one of the most preeminent plastic surgeons of his generation. He too had left his comfortable life to volunteer. His most famous patient was Miss Phan Thi Kim Phúc. She was the 9 year old girl with the horrendous napalm burns who was memorialized in one of the Vietnam War’s most iconic photographs.

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June 8, 1972, 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, Photo: Associated Press photographer Nick Ut

With the imminent Communist takeover of the western backed South Vietnamese government the clinic was forced to close down. Patients were transferred, the local staff re-located, and the remaining western volunteers, including Dr. Mills, escaped on the last planes out, two days before Saigon’s fall.

Darkness descended over Saigon and there was no news on the fate of the Barsky Unit. The United States had no diplomatic relations with Communist Vietnam. In 1989 Dr. McClure, one of the earliest Americans to return to Saigon, (now called Ho Chi Minh City), had heard that the Communist Vietnamese government had re-opened the clinic in the late 1970’s. In the 1990’s an Australian dental/surgical team began working in Ho Chi Minh City at the site of the Barsky Clinic. One volunteer was Melbourne, Australia based surgeon Dr. Rowan Story. After many yearly volunteer visits to Vietnam, Dr. Story, who was unaware of the history of the unit, began to investigate the origins of the unit. He found Dr. Barsky’s son, a physician from Boston, and attorney Tom Miller, now living in Berkeley. Mr. Miller who had become a friend of Dr. McClure had put Dr. Story in touch with the Napa surgeon. This was the beginning of a deep friendship between the two volunteer surgeons. Dr. McClure told Dr. Story about Stanford’s contribution to the Barsky Unit. As an aside, Dr. Story was a guest of Dr. McClure and his family during the horrendous Napa fire in 2017, and helped them evacuate in the middle of the night.

The two surgeons shared three visits to Vietnam with their respective teams combining their expertise to teach the Vietnamese surgeons. To their surprise, the Vietnamese Health Ministry representing the Communist government that was once locked in brutal warfare with the United States, announced they wanted to stage a 50th Anniversary Celebration of founding of the Barsky Unit! They wanted to call attention to the American and international volunteers who came to the aid of Vietnamese children during this dark period in Vietnam’s history. Life had come a full circle. Former enemies were now celebrating each other as friends.

anniversary clinic-1Unfortunately the three Stanford surgeons had passed away before the anniversary, but Dr. McClure invited Mrs. Gerri Gorney widow of Dr. Mark Gorney to represent her husband at the celebration. Dr. McClure’s wife, sister, and two of his four children attended. A large contingent of Tom Miller’s family came. Dr. Arthur Barsky III, the founder’s son attended with his wife Susan, as did Dr. Rowan Story with his family and many fellow Australian volunteers. The Vietnamese hosts include retired Vietnamese surgeons who had worked tirelessly during the war. The big surprise was meeting a handful of the Vietnamese nurses and technicians who had staffed the Barsky Unit. They shared their fond memories of the American and international volunteers. Especially gratifying to Dr. McClure was hearing the story of his mentors.

It was tragedy that brought these doctors and volunteers together. But it was medicine, the gift of healing, and a heart for people, that kept these former enemies together in each other’s hearts over the years. The wonderful anniversary celebration to honor them will be remembered for many years to come.

Below are pictures of the anniversary event as well as the nurses that used to work at the clinic being honored. They stand next to old photos of themselves.

Then and Now. Barsky Unit nurses 50 years later

Then and Now. Miss Lien Huong, former head nurse of the Barsky unit