A Doctor’s War Story

Air Force Doctor Sheldon Kushner had been through a lot already, but nothing had prepared him for what happened on July 1, 1968.

By Mary Jane Ingui

Doctor Sheldon Kushner with Loc.

Dr. Sheldon Kushner, Captain, U.S. Air Force, was thrust into his role as a trauma surgeon at the age of 26, when he was called to serve in South Vietnam in 1968. He saw firsthand the horror of war as he worked to save Vietnamese civilians as part of a Military Provincial Health Assistance Program in Vinh Long, a city located south of Saigon, on the Mekong River.

He wrote to his wife on July 2, 1968: “I see an endless amount of blood, guts, gore, and death. I have never seen so much death in my life. I saw more people die in two weeks than I saw during my entire medical-school and internship period.” One particular case involving a seven-year-old boy named Loc was especially gut-wrenching.

A 1966 graduate of the University of Alabama School of Medicine, Dr. Kushner’s tour of duty began in March of 1968. In Vietnam he was expected to perform a wide variety of surgical procedures – an average of four to six surgeries a day – with limited training, on civilians in an old 400-bed hospital built by the French. In another letter to his wife he commented: “The surgery schedule is almost unbelievable. I just wish I knew more so I could provide more and better medical care to these people.”

Some patients were going to die in spite of their efforts. And they prepared those who had a good chance of surviving, for surgery.

Every day, Kushner and the two other doctors on his team made medical decisions based on available supplies and equipment, and the abilities of their staff. Every morning, they would triage to prioritize care. Those without life-threatening problems were treated by corpsmen.

Some patients were going to die in spite of their efforts. And they prepared those who had a good chance of surviving, for surgery.

The crushing schedule of about two hundred surgeries a month affected Kushner physically and psychologically. He lost 110 pounds, and noted that he and the other two physicians always had colds, diarrhea, or viruses. Letters from his wife, a nurse in Alabama, his parents, and other friends, kept him going.

But nothing could prepare him for what happened on July 1, 1968. On that day, a mother carried her seven-year-old son, Loc, into the hospital for treatment. Both of his legs were badly mangled, and there was evidence of gas gangrene, probably from clostridia perfringens bacteria. In another letter to his wife, Kushner said, “He was clinically septic, and I knew that he would die if we did not act quickly. I had to do two above-the-knee amputations. This gave me a very empty feeling and I almost cried. I know they had to be done, but this little boy never did anything to anybody.”

Loc with Doctor Sheldon Kushner.

With surgery and antibiotics, Loc survived, but he had to have a few additional surgical procedures later. In a recent interview, Dr. Kushner said, “I became very attached to this youngster, and I taught him some English, and read to him when I could find time. My mother sent toys to him, and this always brought a smile to his face. The Navy Seabees built a wheelchair for him. We were able to obtain artificial legs for Loc, and he was able to walk with them with the help of crutches. Loc’s mother brought him to the hospital to see me from time to time.”

Over the years, Dr. Kushner had wondered how Loc was doing or if he was even alive. “It is the vision of this little boy that has remained in my mind to this day,” he revealed.

Kushner’s tour of duty ended in March of 1969. He flew back to Alabama, and after a thirty-day leave when he visited his parents and friends, he and his wife relocated to Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Kushner served as a general medical officer there, a dramatic change from his service in Vietnam. He and his wife lived in an apartment near the base, and he remarked, “Life was good.”

During this time he received a letter from Ba Houng, the Vietnamese nurse who had worked with him in Vinh Long. She told him that Loc had come to the hospital to see him, and cried when he found out that he had left the country. She also related that Loc’s mother had turned him over to his grandmother to provide his care. In turn, the grandmother had sent him to live in a rehab hospital in Saigon, and Loc was not happy there.

Over the years, Dr. Kushner had wondered how Loc was doing or if he was even alive. “It is the vision of this little boy that has remained in my mind to this day,” he revealed.

He has made contacts to try to find him to let him know that he has not been forgotten. “I want him to know that his life is important, and always has been,” he noted.

Looking back on his time in Vietnam, Dr. Kushner said, “We filled a great humanitarian need. We relied on sheer tenacity and creativity to help patients survive.”

Loc was just one example.

 

Mary Jane InguiMary Jane Ingui is a freelance writer with a doctorate in American History, and has taught history at various colleges and universities since 1979.