In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

March 17, 2020

Retired Physician Shares Wartime Memories in “From Mayo Clinic to Vietnam: Memoirs of a Physician Serving in the War”

By In the Loop

Just a week after agreeing to join the staff at Mayo Clinic, Dr. James Donadio was drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he was a commissioned captain running a renal intensive care unit for wounded soldiers.

On April 1, 1966, James Donadio, M.D., made a handshake agreement to join the staff of Mayo Clinic. "A week later, I received my draft notice," Dr. Donadio, then a 31-year-old father of four, tells us. After resettling his family near relatives, he "reported to Fort Sam Houston and learned to be a soldier." By the beginning of August, Dr. Donadio was a commissioned captain on the ground in Vietnam, in charge of running a renal intensive care unit for wounded soldiers.

"It was a unique and challenging experience," the retired nephrologist and former chair of the Mayo Clinic Division of Nephrology and Hypertension tells us. It was also a rewarding one. Dialysis was in its infancy, a new treatment that was being used in the United States to save the lives of patients who had chronic kidney disease. In Saigon, Dr. Donadio and his colleagues developed novel ways of using dialysis to treat a different group: those who had acute kidney failure, a result of the trauma of war. They also cared for patients who had developed tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. "It was very different from my training at Mayo," Dr. Donadio says.

But there were similarities as well. In Vietnam, as at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Donadio was "surrounded by good people," he tells us. "Everyone was well-trained and motivated, and we managed patients in a collaborative way." There was also a strong Catholic presence nearby. A group of Sisters had started orphanages for children who had lost their parents in the war. Dr. Donadio and his colleagues at the Third Field Hospital helped care for the children alongside the Sisters.

Dr. Donadio took meticulous notes and many photos during his year in Vietnam. Photos at the hospital and orphanages. Photos in the streets of Saigon. Photos of refugees heading to the city to get away from the fighting. A handful of years ago, he started showing those photos to his children and telling them the stories behind the images. "They told me, 'Dad, you've got to write this up,'" Dr. Donadio says.

He took their advice. The result, "From Mayo Clinic to Vietnam: Memoirs of a Physician Serving in the War," includes more than 200 of Dr. Donadio's photos and other documents. The book highlights his experience delivering care in a war zone, as well as the difficulty of being away from his wife and young children. "In a little over three months, my life was transformed from a civilian in Minnesota to a military doctor in full uniform with 8,600 miles separating me from my family," he writes on the PBS website Minnesota Remembers Vietnam.

That time, while difficult, was also "an amazing experience," Dr. Donadio tells us. "Vietnam was my first job, really. And we worked together so well. Patients came first for sure, just like at Mayo."

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Tags: Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, Dr. James Donadio, Employee Stories, Mayo Clinic in Rochester

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