THE STORY OF SUSIE ATHRENS
(formerly) Man Thi Dang
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I was a Vietnamese refugee who was rescued by helicopter from Tan Son Nhut AFB, So VN, airlifted to the USS Hancock on the Pacific Ocean then disembarked on Grande island, PI on May 3rd, 1975.
My adoptive mother was with me and got sick on the ship but got worse because of lack of medical care. After a couple of days on the island, she got worse so I went to the commissary to ask them for help, and finally my mother got transported to the Naval Hospital in Subic Bay.
Since I was the only relative, the hospital allowed me to stay with my mother in Ward B, which was reserved for refugees only at the time. My ability in English speaking came in handy as I was able to help out with other patients in the same boat, then eventually became the official interpreter. Every day, I would make the rounds with the Doctors and translate for the patients, helping out with the nurses and almost the entire hospital staff whenever they needed help with communications.
My mother passed away a week later. It was rather sudden and I was devastate and all alone, so instead of leaving with other refugees for the States, I asked if I could stay at the hospital a little while longer to help out as I could see the need for my service since there were more and more sick/injured refugees coming and the ward was almost full. I became a nurse, friend, counselor, sister, daughter to these people, and somehow it helped me to ease my own pain and despair when I saw other peoples sufferings and loss and was able to console and comfort them a little.
My mother was buried in Clark AFB, the hospital pulled some strings with the Philippines government to get me permission to attend the burial, I was escorted by an armed military man the whole time but it meant so much to me that I was able to be there. It was a sad funeral, I bid farewell to my mother the last time, still disbelieved that she was gone, and was lonely and scared for my uncertain future (I was 24 years old at the time).
By the middle of June, the hospital decided to ship all patients to the States on a medivac flight , so I was sent along and we flew to to Clark then to the US, all the way to Indiantown Gap, PA. It was a long flight with several layovers, (Clark to Guam, Hawaii, Calif, Florida and Pennsylvania) on a military C-130 aircraft.
The hospital staff gave me a surprise farewell party, by then I became a part of the ward, and it was sad and hard to leave, besides the plaque, letter of appreciation, they gave me a goodbye card signed by almost entire hospital staff.
While I was at the hospital, the Philippino government was very strict with the refugees, we were not allowed to go outside of Grande Island, or the Naval Hospital, I stayed within the hospital premise, in the ward with other patients, I will never forget how good everyone was treating me, from the top Administrators, to the Philippine janitor, all the Doctors and Nurses, Lab technicians, cooks in the galley. They all made me feel welcome and treated me like a guest, not as a homeless refugee.
I cant remember all their names but I do remember their faces and I wish I had a chance to come back and visit sometimes, but I knew most of them have been reassigned elsewhere after a couple of years, some are probably retired, some might have passed away. I also never forget the night these doctors and nurses snuck me out of the hospital to the Officer Club and treated me dinner and a movie afterward.
35 years have passed, but the memories of Subic Bay, although bittersweet, live with me and always vivid like it was yesterday. I never had chance to say a formal thank you, but I have always been very grateful and if anybody from there happens to read these words, Id like to send my gratitude, and a big THANK YOU for helping me at the most difficult time of my life.
Sincerely, Susie Ahrens / formerly
Man Thi Dang