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Delaware doctor reunites with Vietnam patient after 50 years

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. (AP) — As the paramedics wheeled Roger Wagner into the American hospital in Vietnam, all he could hear were moans of soldiers who had lost their limbs, the cries of young men who believed they were going to die.

It was December 29, 1967 — the midst of the Vietnam War — and Wagner, then 20, had been shot in his left leg. During regular firearms training on the military base, the enemy began shooting at them from the jungle.

At the hospital, a doctor told Wagner his left leg would need to be amputated. Yet when he awoke from surgery hours later and fearfully pulled up the sheet, he saw his two legs were intact.

A different doctor, this one a surgeon with the last name of Katz, told Wagner he was able to save his leg. Wagner never asked Katz his first name and, decades later, the look of the surgeon’s face has escaped the veteran’s memory.

As a result, he has never been able to find him to properly thank him.

Here’s when the made-for-TV-moment comes in.

Dr. Mayer Katz — a retired Delaware surgeon who established the vascular surgery program at Beebe Healthcare — was to be featured on the PBS show “We’ll Meet Again,” hosted by journalist Ann Curry.

The show highlights people who are looking to find those who “changed their life,” and in this case, Katz and Wagner are reunited for the first time in half a century.

For most of the episode, Wagner describes his experience in the war and his previous failed attempts to find the Delaware doctor.

Patients who undergo this kind of surgery can have issues with their leg 10 to 30 years later, the doctor said. Katz had never followed up with the patient who received the operation 50 years ago — until now.

“I think this is the longest follow up for a vein graft — ever,” he said. “It’s kind of amazing.”

Katz was sent to Vietnam in 1967, just a few months after he finished his surgical residency at Boston City Hospital. The 30-year-old left behind his two toddlers and his wife, Nancy, who he wrote letters to almost every day during the war.

For the year he was in Vietnam, he spent most of his time in Phu Bai at a mobile Army surgical unit — commonly known as M.A.S.H. The fear of danger was constant, he said.

Katz said the M.A.S.H. had everything the doctors needed: operating rooms, loads of blood and drugs and a handful of surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists.

He performed about 400 surgeries and likely treated even more soldiers and civilians, including local children. Only eight of his patients died.

Throughout the war, Katz detailed all of his operations and his patients in his diary and medical journal, which he still has in his Rehoboth Beach home. He also has photos from the camera he brought with him. Most of them are of the operations, showing the arteries and intestines Katz repaired.

Going into Vietnam, Katz had an interest in vascular surgery, which proved to be helpful. Many of the surgeries he performed in Vietnam, including Wagner’s, he had done during his residency.

But one shook him: He once extracted a live M-79 grenade from an American soldier’s cheek. The man and his buddy had gotten high on drugs and decided to shoot M-79 grenade launchers at one another.

If Katz incorrectly extracted the live grenade, he could have injured — or killed — himself and those around him.

The man survived and Katz received The Army Soldier’s Medal, which is given to a soldier who “distinguishes themselves by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy,” according to its description.

“The real medal I got was staying alive,” Katz said.

When Wagner became Katz’s patient, the doctor was about six months into his time in Vietnam. From the beginning, Katz was confident that he wouldn’t need to amputate Wagner’s leg.

He performed a surgery he had done many times before, in which he took out a vein of the right leg and used it as a replacement for the damaged femoral artery in the left leg.

Katz said he was unable to properly introduce himself to Wagner because, shortly following the surgery, he was sent to Japan to care for American soldiers who were suffering from serious burn wounds.

Following the war, Katz became a surgeon at a hospital in Beloit, Wisconsin, where he started a vascular surgery program. He came to Delaware in 1990 and started a similar program at Beebe Medical Center. He retired just a few months ago.

The doctor said he rarely talked about Vietnam and his experience in the years that followed. He recalls once speaking with a colleague, a psychologist, who taught him about post-traumatic stress disorder and how it affected many veterans.

While Katz doesn’t doubt that the war had some type of impact on him, he believes surgery and constantly working helped him get through it. He also believes the war made him a better doctor.

“M.A.S.H taught me what to do in almost any situation,” Katz said.

In the past decade, Katz has become more curious about his patients and how they fared after the war. With the help of his daughter, he has connected with a couple of them through Facebook.

When it came to Wagner, the veteran has reached out to the PBS show with the hopes of finding Katz. When a person with the show called the doctor about Wagner, the name didn’t sound familiar to the doctor.

So he referred to his journals.

After flipping through a couple pages, he found Wagner and the patient description of him. Katz was interested in meeting with him — even if meant going on television — because he wanted to see how Wagner’s left leg was doing.

“Does he have one leg or two legs,” he remembers asking the production assistant who called him. Some patients can have issues with their legs years after the operation.

She wouldn’t tell him, saying the producers wanted him to be surprised.

A few months later, Wagner flew to Delaware to meet Katz. They scheduled to meet, with the cameras rolling, at a garden near Rehoboth.

When the surgeon finally met his patient, he cried.

The veteran was walking toward him on his own two legs.

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.



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