There are simple people and there are complicated people. Norm Bethune was definitely of the latter strain. Independent, erratic, gifted, persistent-ever searching for the next direction, or "mission."
His parents were great admirers of D.L. Moody. His father was a pastor at various small towns throughout Ontario, Canada, and his mother was a missionary. Bethune himself didn't seem to have the same interest as his parents in the things of God. But his mother's missionary fervor was obviously a very prominent influence in his life.
His genius as a surgeon first emerged when he contracted tuberculosis and decided that he must prepare to die. He encouraged his wife to divorce him, and he went to a sanitarium. But once he got there, he found the boredom of waiting to die was more tortuous than the illness itself, and he began to research the disease. His fortunes changed drastically when he happened upon a book describing a new procedure which involved removing part of the ribs to collapse an ailing lung. This procedure was new-only about a year old, but Bethune was interested. He was determined to be a beneficiary of this new innovation, and this determination eventually led to his recovery. It was 1927.
After his recovery, he became a thoracic surgeon. But he was frustrated by the numbers of indigent patients who did not get timely treatment because they were too poor. His preoccupation with, an concern for the "underdogs" of the world eventually led him to Spain, where he got involved in the Spanish civil war, working with the forces battling Franco. This experience had a profound effect on his thinking. He joined the Communist Party, and campaigned for support for the resistance forces.
But the heart of this book really begins when Dr. Bethune goes to China. His experiences as a battlefield surgeon make fascinating reading. He was hot-tempered and impatient, but his decision to use his genius as a surgeon to help the guerrilla fighters has given us a story well worth the reading. Edison said that "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Well, I don't know about the actual percentages, but it is clear that Bethune's life had a good dose of both. He was not only a physician, he was an inventor. He invented 12 different surgical instruments, and published 14 articles outlining his innovations in surgical technique. He was very creative, and a very, very hard worker. And he would not tolerate incompetence. He was vehement almost to the point of violence in his determination to give the best possible treatment to the wounded. The descriptions of battlefield surgery in this book are sometimes painful to read, but very, very compelling.
But I am not a medical person. My primary interest in this book stems from my interest in history. There are several ways that this book is helpful in that area. First of all, the story takes place during the Sino-Japanese war, a time in which Jiang jieshi got a lot of criticism from the Americans because of his refusal to fight the Japanese. Jiang jieshi always said, "The Japanese are a disease of the skin. The Communists are a disease of the heart." Although, he certainly did not want the Japanese to overrun China, he was very hesitant to expend men and resources against what he saw as a major enemy of the Communist armies, which he despised. He obviously felt that if he burned himself out fighting the Japanese, he would make it that much easier for the Communists to take over. That being the case, I have always wondered how much the Communists concentrated on fighting the Japanese themselves. This book answers that question. The wounds Bethune treated were inflicted by the Japanese. And the book gives weight to the idea that perhaps Jiang jie shi's approach backfired, because his refusal to fight the Japanese caused the Chinese people to lose respect for him.
Bethune died of septicemia in November of 1939. In her forward to the book, Soong Ching ling makes much of the charge that his death was due to the fact that the Guomindang refused to let the medicine through. I don't know about that. But it is terribly frustrating to read a story like this, because it is clear that a simple antibiotic could have saved him, as well as many other soldiers he would have been able to save if he had lived.
Finally, Bethune's life had a unique influence on history in a way that I am sure he never could have anticipated. During the days before the opening of China, which began with Nixon's visit in 1972, very few countries had any relationship at all with China. But Canada was a notable exception. Mao and others in China always viewed Canada in a positive light, and much of this was due to the overwhelming tendency to identify Canada with Dr. Norman Bethune, who is a national hero in China.