A Tale of Two Hospitalizations: Babe’s Long Stay During WWII

In January 2014, a few days before the start of my daughter Sarah’s final semester at Missouri State University, she called shortly after 8 p.m. to let me know she was about to go in for surgery. She needed to have her appendix removed. Her roommate and friends had found her doubled over in her apartment five hours earlier and took her to the emergency room.

I jumped in the car and raced to Springfield from our home near St. Louis, a three-hour drive. By the time I got there, the surgery was over and she was in the recovery room. By 1:15 a.m., my daughter, her roommate and I were in the drive-thru at McDonald’s buying milkshakes. She was back in her apartment fewer than 12 hours after she arrived in the hospital.

Contrast that with Babe’s stay after his combat injury, which we presume happened sometime in November 1944. He seemed to be in a hurry to send this letter to his parents in order to beat any War Department telegram that he feared would unnecessarily frighten them. He didn’t date the letter, but it was postmarked Nov. 24, 2014; his previous letter was dated Nov. 21, so the injury obviously happened within that three-day period.

By Jan. 12, 1945, he had written to his brother Vin, mentioning that he was still in the hospital, adding “I don’t expect to stay here much longer.” An undated letter to his parents postmarked Jan. 20 said the same thing.

So Babe spent possibly two months away from his unit, laid up in the hospital, over the 1944 Christmas holiday, for what he seemed to think was a relatively minor wound: “I have been slightly wounded in the right fifth toe and I am now in the hospital,” he wrote. “A couple of toes are fractured, so you can see there is nothing for you to be worrying about.”

I mused about this to a writer and blogger named Susan Sundin, who’s written a series of WWII-based novels, some of which center on the nursing corps during the war. She’s done some research in the area, and she herself is a pharmacist, as was her father when he was in the army.

“They kept the patient until completely recovered. The concept of outpatient recovery is fairly modern,” she wrote. “A lot of research during the war led to the discovery that getting patients moving quickly again led to fewer complications. Seems logical to us now, but it was revolutionary then.”

Indeed, there’s a 1944 paper that’s widely cited around the Internet called “The Evil Sequelae Of Complete Bed Rest,” published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. (A “sequela” is the after-effect of a medical condition.)

In it, Dr. William Dock writes: “The effects of hospital life and of bed rest on the psyche are so obvious and have been so clearly described by such novelists as Tolstoy and Balzac that most laymen are well aware of this hazard are therapy. At the present time, the effects of complete bed rest on metabolism and on the structure and function of healthy volunteers are being subjected to a careful quantitative study.”

Want to know how many beds were occupied by wounded service men and women in World War II? Well, this report focuses only on the Italian theater of battle and indicates that in November 1944, when Babe was wounded, there were 27,950 available beds, of which 22,628 (81 percent) were occupied.

A 2008 Johns Hopkins study about mobility among intensive-care patients also cited WWII-era research: “The benefits of getting hospitalized patients out of bed and moving were understood during World War II with battlefield injuries,” said Dr. Dale Needham of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

So in the absence of more information, I can only reach one of three conclusions: 1) Babe’s injury was a lot worse than he let on; 2) Babe had complications that he didn’t share in any of his letters (e.g. perhaps an infection); or, 3) this revolutionary research about bed rest hadn’t caught up to Babe’s doctors.

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