Today brought the culmination of an incredible union between an American doctor, a former North Vietnamese soldier, and an amputated arm.
Shot in the right arm, Nguyen Quang Hung escaped an American ambush in 1966 by floating down a stream. He hid in a rice warehouse for three days before American soldiers captured him.
His arm was badly infected. By the time Hung got to young medic Sam Axelrad, 27, it was the color of an eggplant. To save his enemy’s life, Axelrad amputated the arm above the elbow.
But here’s where it gets weird.
Axelrad’s medic colleagues boiled off the infected flesh, reconstructed the arm bones and gave them to him. Axelrad brought the skeletal keepsake home to Texas as a reminder that when a badly injured enemy was brought to him, he did the right thing and fixed him up. For more than four decades the bones were the literal skeleton in the Houston urologist’s closet.
Back in Vietnam, Hung spent eight months recovering and another six assisting American military doctors. He spent the rest of the war offering private medical services in Phu Cat, in the central Binh Dinh province. He later served in local government for a decade before retiring on his rice farm.
Axelrad was still in Texas with the arm in his closet. He finally decided to go through his military bag in 2011: seeing the arm “triggered my thoughts of returning" to Vietnam, he said. The doctor traveled there last summer, partly for vacation, but also to see if he could find Hung. When Axelrad toured the old Vietnam War bunker at the Metropole Hotel in downtown Hanoi, his tour guide was Tran Quynh Hoa, a Vietnamese journalist who took a keen interest in his war stories. Hoa wrote a newspaper article about Axelrad that Hung’s brother-in-law read.
That led to the meeting between the doctor, now 74, and Hung, now 73, that took place today in An Khe, Vietnam. Hung and his grandchildren ate lunch with Axelrad and four of his children and grandchildren. The two patriarchs joked about which of them had been better looking back when war made them enemies. “I’m so happy that he was able to make a life for himself,” Axelrad said.
During the meeting, Axelrad brought out Hung’s right arm and returned it. Hung said, “I can’t believe that an American doctor took my infected arm, got rid of the flesh, dried it, took it home and kept it for more than 40 years. I don’t think it’s the kind of keepsake that most people would want to own.”