My wife and my two young sons were living in Massachusetts near my mother and father after I got my orders for my Navy anesthesiology residency. I would be officially transferred from St. Albans Naval Hospital to Chelsea Naval Hospital (soon to be officially renamed Boston Naval Hospital). I had to finish part of my initial residency at St. Albans and the last three-weeks I lived in the BOQ–the bachelor’s office quarters. It was a two-story white building a block long separated in the middle by a firewall into the female officers’ and male officers’ living space. The females were of course the nurses, female doctors and dentists plus a distribution of Medical Service Officers, Security, Logistics, Judge Advocate (legal) and other support women of officer rank. The male section was mostly the single doctors and similar support staff. A good number were married but had received orders to St. Albans Naval Hospital and were awaiting their family to follow after the school year was completed or other domestic constraints delayed their arrival. A very few were arrivals from Vietnam who were assigned to St. Albans with less than a year left to their service obligation. These few doctors and others lived elsewhere in New York State which is one of the biggest states in the country. They would have their family visit them or would use up some of their leave time with long weekends to their real home in various parts of the state.
Occasionally a Vietnam returnee would take up BOQ residence who actually had a home close by–in New York City. We had three such doctors in this category. Two would visit their homes in the City when they were not on call and this included the weekends. One physician, however, took a permanent room because of a marital situation which had changed since his 18-months away in Southeast Asia. I’ll never forget this outstanding physician and unfortunate human being–Commander Fulton Portnoy Blivitz.
Dr. Blivitz was a noted New York City thoracic surgeon. He was published extensively in the open-heart surgery and lung surgery medical literature and was formerly assistant chief of thoracic surgery at a major New York medical center before he went to Vietnam. I met him when he first moved into the BOQ–it was the first day I moved in after sending my family off to Massachusetts. We checked in on the same day and introduced each other.
“I’m Fulton Blivitz.” He extended his tanned hand. “I just came back after an extended Nam tour.”
“I’m Peter Glassman–first year anesthesia resident. I’m actually assigned to Chelsea Naval Hospital in Boston but my slot doesn’t open up for 3-weeks.”
“Why not stay here for the residency program?”
He was a foot taller than my 5-foot-6-inches and I guessed he had a lot of sun exposure because he had a seasoned tan. “St. Albans couldn’t fill its residency positions so I’m the last one here. I actually put in for Boson at the end of my St. Albans internship. My family just left ahead of me.”
“Well how about we meet tonight at the Officer’s Club–my treat?”
I’d be a jerk to pass up the offer. I wasn’t looking forward to eating all my meals at the hospital officer’s mess hall. In the military enlisted people got their meals paid but officers had to pay cash.
He knocked on my door promptly at 7:30. We wore our tan uniforms which were still in season. During my first week at the Q, which is what everyone who lived there called it, I got to know Blivitz’s personal woes. At the hospital he was 100% academic and an excellent surgeon.
“How many children do you havePeter?” We had ordered the evening meal special and drinks–coffee for me and a scotch for him. I told him about my infant and toddler sons.
“Just babies, eh. Yeah, my kids are all grown and in college–a boy and a girl.” He talked about when they were youngsters with a smile which quickly faded as he finished his first scotch. “I’m going to give you some advice Peter. Find as much time with your family as you can so you won’t end up like me.”
I didn’t know how to come back with anything for that declaration so I just looked at him.
He ordered another scotch and looked down at his hands. “I spent my early marital years, which included medical school, burying myself in the books. Later internship and residency in General Surgery took up most of my time and my wife was constantly bitching about my not having time for her.”
“I’m already getting some of that talk.” I somehow wanted to show some understanding.
“She would outright tell me she regretted becoming a doctor’s wife. She liked to party. She liked to travel. She liked frequent vacations.” He got his second drink and sipped it. “I couldn’t concentrate on my work and cope with her complaints so I did what most of us doctors do. I got her pregnant.” He raised his glass to his lips. “Two babies kept her busy but didn’t stop the bitching. The complaints just multiplied. She said I wasn’t spending any time with the kids. They would grow up never knowing what a real father was.”
I swallowed a few gulps of coffee. “My God. I’m getting that now too.”
“Then listen up closely to what I say. I ignored her. After my thoracic surgery residency I decided to stay in academia. I joined the staff at Cornell and added not only open-heart surgery to my time schedule but decided to add medical research and teaching. My kids were teenagers and getting into trouble. My wife was getting to like this stuff too much.” He raised his scotch glass again.
I decided to interrupt and change the subject. “How’d you get into the Navy at such a senior level? Most of us get drafted or are on the Berry Plan to come in after residency training?”
“Actually I got deferred from military service by being a consultant to the training program at Bethesda Naval Hospital. One day I met someone from the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery from the Navy Department in Washington DC. He told me the Navy needed someone to help update the war surgery directives on thoracic surgery. Such a person would have to have combat surgery experience.”
“So you left everything you had at the Cornell Medical Center for Southeast Asia?” I couldn’t fathom why anyone would leave what they had worked a lifetime for to get their balls shot off in Vietnam.
“I reached the point where my oldest boy was giving me advice. He told me that his mom was talking about meeting new people at luncheons downtown. My daughter heard my wife mentioning new friends including one or two men’s names.”
I saw the look of grief on his face and felt I had to say something positive. “It doesn’t mean she was looking for someone else.”
“My whole point in reminiscing is to inform you it’s exactly what happens when everyone in the roost is leaving and she’s left all alone with no hope for change in the future.” He paused. “We went to a marriage counselor my wife said came highly recommended by one of her friends. To my astonishment he recommended we each try an extended separation. If we’re really apart we can both see how much we should be together. It would ultimately enhance our balance of time with each other.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” I was astonished and afraid for my future for some reason. Maybe it was the way he was telling it.
“She thought it was a fantastic idea. She claimed she had always wanted to be a pastry chef. It was the first time I ever heard of this. So off she went to Europe–Vienna–and I accepted the Navy’s appointment and accepted a commission. Her schooling would take a year-and-a-half and I took a year in Vietnam which I extended for another 6-months.” He ordered his third scotch when our meal was served.
“And now you’re back. So why aren’t you back in New York City with your wife?” I had to know.
“She’s cohabitating with a New York City Viennese pastry chef and restaurant owner.” He swilled down half the scotch and attacked his dinner.
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