Gerry Duvall: A Life of Nursing and Nurturing
There is a Duvall, Ohio. Gerry Duvall was not born there. He was born on his family’s farm when the Great Depression was still a reality. Making a living on the farm was a daily struggle. Weary of farming, his grandmother bought a double house thirty miles away in Shady Side, Ohio. The family moved “to town.” Shadyside, Ohio can be described as “stuck in time.” There were about 4000 people then and about 4000 people now. The town was then 100% white European and is now 99%. High School football was the excitement. Things have not changed.
Gerry was a good student, mild mannered and serious. He knew that there was something “different” about him from early on. He kept his head down but knew he would not follow his father into the coal mine. He attended Community College and discovered an interest in health care. A job as an orderly introduced him to nursing. Few men were in the field but a nurse from his work told him that the St. Francis School of Nursing in Columbus had about 12 guys. That, with low tuition and a draft notice, sealed Gerry’s educational fate.
Knowing that he would be drafted after graduation, Gerry joined the army student nurse program. St. Francis was a three year diploma school of nursing; even today the three year programs are regarded as outstanding. Gerry graduated summa cum laude and put on a uniform. Basic training in Ft. Sam Houston and Operating Nurse program at Ft. Benning led him to Vietnam. Why O.R. nursing? Gerry explains his natural tendency to like rules and procedures and especially, “The nurse is in charge in the operating room.”
Asked how he felt about the protests against the war, he recounts that it did not affect him. He was raised in a patriotic family and was driven by a passion to be the best Operating Room Nurse he could be and care for our war wounded. In November, 1968, ten months after the Tet Offensive, Gerry arrived at the 95th Evacuation Hospital in DaNang, a coastal area on the South China Sea. Despite the slogan, “Hell’s Half-Acre Revisited,” Gerry denies ever being frightened. He laughs, “Only one nurse was killed during action in Vietnam.” When the bombing got too close, off-duty personnel had to sleep in corrugated metal tunnels. Gerry describes the tunnels as miserably uncomfortable and emphasizes that he preferred to stay on duty. He laughs about one 84 hour shift over Easter weekend 1968.
The 95th Evac Hospital cared for our wounded, Vietnamese wounded, and civilian wounded. The physicians, nurses, medics, and other healthcare providers gave care to all. He relates a fondness for the Vietnamese who worked with them and expresses concern for what must have happened to them after our withdrawal. He reports little discrimination against gays. ”We were family. All of us. We worked, lived, and played together.” Gerry says that it broke his heart to leave when his tour was up. Even today, it takes very little encouragement for Gerry to show slides of the team and procedures they worked on. This experience was written in blood.
Following his tour in Vietnam, Gerry was stationed at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii where he met Dr. Gary Colangelo. They have been together since that time, settling in the DC/Baltimore area where Gerry ruled an OR at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the next 35 years. Gerry’s Vietnam experience made him dread war injuries. The last third of his working life saw more and more horrific battle wounds as we took up arms against Iraq and Afghanistan. His usually equanimity disappears and shaking his head, solemnly asks, “Will it never end?”
In the mid-1990s, a respite developed: Rehoboth Beach. Gerry and Gary bought a town house on the second beach block in 1997 which they rented in the summer and used in the winter. Preparing for retirement, they built their dream house in Kinsale Glen. The house, open and spacious, backs up to wooded state lands. Gerry, a self-described homebody, finds his inspiration sitting on their deck or porch.
Some years ago, Gerry developed Type I Diabetes, which is generally known as Juvenile Diabetes. Late onset Diabetes I is unusual and requires assiduous management, including an insulin pump. Mystery solved recently when the Department of the Army contacted Gerry to admit to extreme use of Agent Orange in the coastal South China Sea close to DaNang. Agent Orange is implicated in late onset Diabetes I. Gerry and Vietnam are inextricably bound.
Asked what he wanted his legacy to be, he answers easily. “I want to be remembered as a decent person who helped not hurt others throughout my life.”
Knowing Gerry as I know him, he is already living his legacy.