The caduceus

We should all ‘do no harm’

By Kathleen Huntley
Reader Contributor

When he was barely 18, and unable to vote in this country, my late husband had a caduceus tattooed on his upper right arm. He turned 18 on a Navy vessel headed for Korea, where he was assigned as a corpsman with the Marines on the front line. It was the Korean War, 1952, and his pride in his new occupation was strong. A life saver rather than a life taker.

That caduceus, the symbol of medical help, was seen by many men wounded in rice paddies and rocky cliffs where this young man, just a boy, labored night and day to save them. And he saved many. When one couldn’t be helicoptered out because of a weight imbalance, my husband strapped himself on the opposite skid so they could fly the wounded marine to safety. Night and day, he was devoted to the sick, the wounded and the dying.

Ironically, he was shot in that tattooed arm the day the Korean War ended. The bullet missed the caduceus, however several surgeries were required before he could return to duty. He came home to the United States and continued as a Navy corpsman in Cuba during the revolution and in Alaska during the earthquake there in 1964 — the caduceus ever present on his arm. The symbol of help, the symbol of healing that goes back to the Old Testament and Moses.

Years later, when the young man grew older, he chose a career change, that as a tree trimmer. One day, before he was able to snap his safety harness he passed out and fell. He fell as dead weight — chainsaw and all, roped to his side — through the 2-by-4’s of the patio below him, crushing, among many parts, his upper right arm. Multiple surgeries again were required. When the first one was unsuccessful another attempted taking bone fragments from his hips, failing to heal, then trying again.

Each time the incision for these surgeries was meticulously made down the middle of the Caduceus tattoo, the surgeons carefully cutting on the line of the proceeding opening. When the surgeries were complete the closing surgeon took additional steps and effort to put each inked spot back to its proper place in the design. A complicated symbol broken and reassembled on elastic flesh over and over again.

I can imagine working on a symbol of everything you stand for. Your chosen career, a career to heal, to “do no harm” — the caduceus.

This year we have witnessed thousands of dedicated people like my late husband. They may not have a visible symbol tattooed on their flesh, but it is imprinted on their hearts. They are working long hours, placing their own bodies in the line of fire just like the corpsmen on a battlefield. They are no less heroes hanging in to give balance to the skids, to flatten the curve of a vicious viral enemy; an enemy that is global and apparently non-selective.

All they ask of us, as fellow soldiers in the battle against the pandemic, the crisis of an earthquake, is “do no harm.” 

Respect the caduceus as the surgeons did on my late husband’s arm — the one you see on the EMT ambulance, the one you see on their uniform patches. They are working unselfishly and asking us to help them and your loved ones in a simple way.

Help them, and help each other by wearing a mask. It is the right thing to do. It is the unselfish thing to do.

Kathleen Huntley lives in Hope.

Editor’s note: While the U.S. military has in the past used the caduceus for its medical corps personnel, contemporary medical professionals — including EMT’s — use the rod of Asclepius (one snake wound around a rod, rather than two snakes coiled around a double-winged rod). 

The caduceus was originally chosen for military use in the mid- to late-1800s because of its ancient Greek associations with trade and expedition, being the staff carried by Apollo — noting that it marked out medical personnel as noncombatants. There also seems to have been a fair amount of plain old confusion when the caduceus was first adopted (with many people conflating the two symbols), and has been changed by the military in recent decades to the rod of Asclepius (though out of tradition the U.S. Army Medical Corps still uses the caduceus).

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