In 1966, Dr. Sam Axelrad amputated the arm of North Vietnamese soldier, Ngyuen Quang Hung. At the time they were enemies, but seeing the infection Hung was suffering from, Axelrad did the right thing and operated on him saving his life.
Hung, 73, said American troops shot him in the arm in October 1966 during an ambush about 75 kilometers (46 miles) from An Khe, the town where he now lives. After floating down a stream to escape a firefight and then sheltering in a rice warehouse for three days, he was evacuated by a U.S. helicopter to a no-frills military hospital in Phu Cat, in central Binh Dinh province.
“When I was captured by the American forces, I was like a fish on a chopping-board,” Hung said last week. “They could have either killed or spared me.”
When Hung got to Axelrad, then a 27-year-old military doctor, his right forearm was the color of an eggplant. To keep the infection from killing his patient, Axelrad amputated the arm above the elbow.
After the surgery, Hung spent eight months recovering and another six assisting American military doctors, Hung said. He spent the rest of the war offering private medical services in the town, and later served in local government for a decade before retiring on his rice farm.
In 2011, Axelrad went back through the mementos he brought back from the Vietnam War and was surprised to discover he had kept Hung’s amputated arm. He decided to take a trip back to Vietnam to find Hung and reunite him with his arm.
“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,” he said by telephone last week from his home. “I don’t think it’s the kind of keepsake that most people would want to own. But I look forward to seeing him again and getting my arm bones back.”
The two ended up sharing stories and becoming good friends.
Hung served Axelrad and his family lunch, shared memories and reflected on all the time that had passed. Axelrad said he was pleased to learn where and how Hung had been living for so many years, and to meet his children and grandchildren.
Although this story seems morbid, it shows that treating others with compassion can unite two people under any circumstance.