Festive Left Friday Blogging: Norman Bethune, socialized medical pioneer

Dr. Norman Bethune: Surgeon and Innovator”.

When you hear the teabaggers screeching about public healthcare being “socialism” and “communism”, stop and think–maybe they’re not so far off the mark after all. But they’re wrong about it being a BAD thing. It is a lifesaver, and was conceived as such from its very beginning, on grounds both socialist and humanitarian. Norman Bethune, the great Canadian physician who served in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, and later with Mao’s troops in China, was a communist. As a curator points out in the video above, it was considered a deep dark secret in Canada at the time, although those who had regular contact with him through his letters were well aware of it, since they were typically leftists themselves. Certainly he himself was not ashamed of it; in fact, he was (rightfully) contemptuous of those who dismissed him and his work on account of it.

To this day, there are heroic statues to Norman Bethune in China. Even more important than his weighty historic role, though, is Bethune’s contribution to medicine. He is considered an innovator in blood-transfusion services and thoracic surgery both. He invented a pair of bone shears still used in thoracic surgery at present. And if you’re a fan of M*A*S*H, you may be interested to know that Bethune’s work was later copied by mobile army surgical units from the capitalist US, as well. He perfected his mobile emergency transfusion techniques during his Spanish Republican days. Here’s a snippet from one of his letters to the Canadian leftist magazine, New Frontier, in 1936, describing how the service operated:

Our night work is very eerie! We get a phone call for blood. Snatch up our packed bag, take two bottles (each 500 c.c.)–one of group IV and one of group II–out of the refrigerator and with our armed guard off we go through the absolutely pitch dark streets and the guns and machine guns and rifle shots sound as if they were in the next block, although they are really a half mile away. Without lights we drive. Stop at the hospital and with a searchlight in our hands find our way into the cellar principally. All the operating rooms in the hospitals have been moved into the basement to avoid falling shrapnel, bricks and stones coming through the operating room ceiling.

Our bag contains a completely sterilized box of instruments, towels, etc., so we can start work at once. The man is lying most frequently on a stretcher so we kneel down beside him, prick the finger and on a slide put one drop each of Serum type II and type III. If his red blood cells are agglutenated by II and not by III–he is type III. If agglutenated by III he is a II, if by both he is a type I, if neither, he is group IV. So now we know what blood he can take safely. If I, II or IV he gets our bottle of blood group IV (the universal blood). If he is a II, he gets blood group II. He could also take IV but as these “universal donors” are only 45% of the people, we must use II’s when we can.

Then the proper blood is warmed in a pan of water and we are ready to start. The man is usually as white as paper, mostly shocked, with an imperceptible pulse. He may be exsanguinated also and not so much shocked, but usually is both shocked and exsanguinated. We now inject novo-caine over the vein in the bend of the elbow, cut down and find the vein and insert a small glass Cannula then run the blood in. The change in most cases is spectacular. We give him always 500 c.c. of preserved blood and sometimes more and follow it up with Saline or 5% Glucose solution. The pulse can now be felt and his pale lips have some colour.

Yesterday, we did three transfusions–this is about the average daily, besides the blood we leave at hospitals for them to use themselves. We collect 1/2 to 3/4 gallon daily, mix it with Sodium Citrate (3.8%) and keep it just above freezing in the refrigerator in sterile milk and wine bottles. This blood will keep for about a week. We are working on the use of LOCKES’ SOLUTION to preserve the red blood cells longer and are making up Bayliss Gum Solution. (Gum Arabic in Saline.) Bayliss was (or is!) an English Physiologist who brought out this gum solution for shock during the war of 1914-18.

There is a Barcelona Unit who are putting up blood in sterile ampules. I will go there and see the method. It looks O.K.

The International Brigade Hospital needs male and female French and German speaking nurses–not English speaking at present although these may be needed later. Brain surgeons also.

Well, this is a grand country, and great people. The wounded are wonderful.

After I had given a transfusion to a French soldier who had lost his arm, he raised the other to me as I left the room in the Casualty Clearing Station, and with his raised clenched fist exclaimed “Viva la Revolution.” The next boy to him was a Spaniard–a medical student shot through the liver and stomach. When I had given him a transfusion and asked him how he felt, he said “It is nothing–Nada.” He recovered–so did the Frenchman….

(From Right Hand Left Hand, by Dorothy Livesay. All spelling, typography, etc. as in Bethune’s original letter. Linkage added. The blood types which were then called I, II, III and IV are now known as O, A, B and AB, respectively.)

Bethune’s letter gives some indication of the difficult circumstances he operated in, as well as the spirit of those he operated on. It’s not hard to see where his humanitarian dedication came from, I trust!

So when you hear a teabagger yattering on about the “evils” of socialized medicine, you might want to think upon the life and times of one of its greatest proponents, and point out to the ‘bagger that every military in the world, including that of the US, owes a debt of gratitude to a Canadian communist who invented the art of mobile blood banking on the battlefields of Republican Spain.

And then, you may feel free to tell that ignorant ‘bagger to shut the fuck up.

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2 Responses to Festive Left Friday Blogging: Norman Bethune, socialized medical pioneer

  1. MoS says:

    Yes of course universal health care is socialist. What’s curious is how the American people only reject some types of socialism.
    John Kenneth Galbraith, advisor to Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, concluded that the only form of socialism acceptable in the U.S. was socialism for the rich. Think Wall Street bailouts, tobacco and energy subsidies, the perpetual subsidies and overruns of the military-industrial complex.
    It’s only when someone moves to grant the state’s largess to the plebs that the American people see their supposed democracy under attack. Priceless.

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