Honoring our veterans: David G. Dibbell, MD

In honor of Memorial Day, we’re profiling six alumni and faculty who have served in the military during their surgical careers. If you also served, we would love to hear your story. Please drop us a line at michelle.oster@supportuw.org. We thank you for your service.

David G. Dibbell, MD
Military Rank: Colonel, US Air Force (Ret) (1959-1974)

Dr. Dibbell is Professor Emeritus, Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, UW-Madison. He served in the US Air Force for 15 years, during a time of great change and turbulence in U.S. history (1959-74), retiring with the rank of full Colonel.

A long line of family members preceded the colonel in service to their country. As he recounts, “There is a graveyard in Clinton, Connecticut with twelve David Dibbells. I am the thirteenth first son of the first son to be named David, and every one of them served in the military.”

Upon graduation from Yale, but before receiving his medical training, Dibbell became a fighter pilot—which is not surprising, since he grew up steeped in fighter pilot lore. Dibbell says that marriage and fatherhood steered his path toward medicine: “As much as I loved flying, I realized during the Berlin crisis that I probably wasn’t going to live very long doing it. The Air Force did not have much of a medical corps, and they were very anxious to develop one, so they offered to send me to medical school and training thereafter.”

He completed residencies in general surgery and in plastic surgery, at Yale and Stanford.

A Yankee Surgeon in Vietnam

In 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive, Dibbell found himself in the old Imperial City of Huế, Vietnam, appointed as the sole faculty member of the medical school, in charge of a 1000-bed hospital and an 800-bed leprosarium.  The Vietnamese faculty and students had fled the area, and the Viet Cong had assassinated the foreign faculty during the Battle of Huế two months earlier. There were plenty of patients in need of care in Huế, however. Fortunately for Dibbell, the hospital had retained its most valuable asset—its Vietnamese nurses, a cadre of some 160 French-speaking Catholic nuns. This remarkable group of women kept the hospital going.

Eventually, when the students saw that Huế was safe again and that there was a US surgeon at the hospital, about five returned. At that time, Vietnamese medical students received excellent didactic training through lectures and books, but they had little experience in actually treating patients. Dibbell taught them how to operate.

Resources were minimal. As Dibbell recalls, “The hospital did not have enough IV fluids. It had no blood bank. The US Marine Corps gave me whatever old US blood was available, to save Vietnamese patients. There was no laboratory, and no X-ray facilities—which was one reason I loved it—it was like practicing medicine back in the 1800s, except that I had a lot of modern techniques to apply.” Most of the surgical instruments dated to the era of World War I, and some of them were rusty. “They had these big cooking machines to sterilize the instruments, but the knives were used again and again. They were hand-sharpened, and there were times when you were practically in tears, because you couldn’t cut what you needed to cut.”

To make up for the lack of an anesthesiologist, midwives gave “open-drop ether.” This involved placing a small mask over a patient’s nose and pouring ether from a can onto the mask. “There were times when I had to quit operating and take care of the anesthesia,” Dibbell recounts. “We had air-conditioning in the operating room, but we couldn’t have both air and light at the same time, and you can’t operate without light. I weighed my gown once after an operation. It had six pounds of sweat in it.”

The local water was not drinkable, at least for foreigners. They used to rehydrate by drinking beer between cases. It “made the place a lot happier,” says Dibbell. Indeed, alcohol had many uses. At one point during his year in Vietnam, Dibbell lived and practiced in the city of Pleiku, located in the central highland region. The 400-bed medical facility in Pleiku consisted of about 30 separate buildings with no running water, one of which was the operating room. “I scrubbed my hands out of a bucket,” he recalls. As an officer, Dibbell had access to hard liquor, while enlisted men in the US Navy had to be satisfied with beer. With nothing but the promise of two bottles of Jack Daniels, Dibbell successfully persuaded a nearby US Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees) to drill a well, install a submersible pump, and run PVC pipe to the buildings for a supply of fresh running water.

Dibbell treated patients from both sides of the conflict. About a third were Viet Cong, like the elderly district chief from the A Shau Valley, who showed up early one morning as Dibbell was arriving at the hospital. Eight black-clad bodyguards carrying AK-47s, one of whom spoke textbook French, accompanied the man. With no one else around, Dibbell fixed the chief’s cleft lip on his own. “I didn’t know how to work the old French sterilizers, so I just rinsed my instruments in alcohol and operated under local anesthesia. The man got a beautiful result.”

By the end of the year, there were three Vietnamese doctors at the hospital. On a busy day, Dibbell performed four operations, including many cases of intussusception of infants, almost a routine operation due to the prevalence of intestinal worms. One of his most unusual cases was bubonic plague. About half of his patients had combat injuries, and some needed treatment for the ravages of typhoid fever: “I have done 12 cases of perforation of small bowel from typhoid fever,” Dibbell states.

Another time, a 9-year-old girl was brought in with a big hunk of shrapnel in her ankle, which they fixed. After about four days, she was practically running the hospital. “She was amazing, changing patients’ dressings and making sure they got fed.” Her father, a hardcore Viet Cong, thanked Dibbell through an interpreter. “He said he had thought all Americans were evil, and I proved that they weren’t. I replied the same—that his daughter had proved me wrong.”

Close Calls

The sense of danger was palpable and constant. Still, Dibbell enjoyed a degree of protection. “I had bodyguards and they were Viet Cong because I was working in a civilian hospital. The local Viet Cong did not want anybody messing with me.”

He experienced two direct attempts on his life. The first happened in Huế as he drove home on a road parallel to the Perfume River. A gunman hiding in a flat-bottomed wooden boat, called a sampan, put a bullet through the windshield of the jeep Dibbell was driving, narrowly missing his head.

The second attempt was more dramatic. In Pleiku during a torrential monsoon rain, a soldier wanted to check on his unit, which was under attack by the Viet Cong, and Dibbell agreed to accompany him. “Why  I did, I have no idea. Irrational behavior,” says Dibbell. They jumped in the jeep and put five hand grenades up on the dash, just in case. As they rounded the mountainside, they hit a mine, and the jeep flew into the air, ejecting them both. The jeep rolled down the mountain, spewing exploding hand grenades. The men landed in about 10 inches of water, which probably saved their lives. Pursued by Viet Cong, who soon found out that the burning jeep was empty, the men swam and crawled about 2.5 kilometers to the perimeter of the US Fire Base Blackhawk. At 1:00 in the morning, they were able to convince wary US soldiers to let them in. “I’m a pro football fan, and I knew that Jack Concannon was the quarterback for the Chicago Bears. I also let them know that I was the ranking officer in the whole province,” recalls Dibbell.

Going Home

After his one-year assignment was over, still wearing his fatigues on the day he landed in San Francisco, Dibbell experienced the animosity of an American public angered by US participation in the war. He was spit on. Psychologically, the transition was not easy. “When I came back I got myself a stack of books, and I went out to my swimming pool and sat there, and I read. . . I just wanted to bury myself in an intellectual book and wipe out the world.” This was the first sign of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dibbell is not circumspect about his experience in Vietnam, however. He would “do it again in a heartbeat.” He considers being a surgeon a privilege. “I recognize the beauty of the profession, and the honor that accrues by being part of it. I never worked a day in my life. I got up in the morning and I was either going to be a fighter jet pilot, or I was going to get to operate.”

The Move to Madison

The US Air Force did not have its own reconstructive surgery program, so when Dibbell returned from Vietnam he started one, at the base in San Antonio. When the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Surgery decided it needed somebody to build its first program in reconstructive surgery, Dibbell got the call. “I happened to arrive on St. Patrick’s Day, and we had a great party. I decided Madison was a neat place to live. I accepted the job.” He turned down offers to lead programs at both Stanford and Yale, his two alma maters, because “I had more independence in Wisconsin, which was one of the things I had loved about Vietnam.”

Dibbell retired from the Air Force in 1974 as a full colonel. In addition to bringing the UW Division of Plastic Surgery into the modern era, he created international outreach programs, providing plastic surgery and care in Central and South America.

This humanitarian work aligns with lessons Dibbell learned in Vietnam. “We are physicians. Physicians must take care of people, just as I took care of the Viet Cong—I didn’t give them second-rate treatment. I treated them just as I would treat your daughter, or hope that you would treat my kids. When I leave the operating room in Nicaragua and hand a kid back to his mom, it’s when I’m proudest to be a Yankee.”

More stories of our alumni veterans:

Lee D. Faucher, MD, FACS

Jaime Kapur, MD

David P. Foley, MD

James Brandenburg, MD

James Cole, Jr., DO, FACS