Saltwater Portrait

Mayer Katz: Lewes surgeon checks in on Vietnam patients

Katz says MASH experience taught him to handle anything
Mayer Katz as a young doctor during the Vietnam War. SOURCE SUBMITTED
May 28, 2013

For Dr. Mayer Katz, following up with his patients is a top priority, even 45 years down the road.

Katz is a vascular surgeon with some very unique experience under his belt.  The 76-year-old resident of Rehoboth Beach began his decades-long career in a hectic mobile army surgical hospital in Vietnam, performing several surgeries every day on young soldiers who had been sent to war.

Now, Katz is hoping to follow up on the men’s progress, most of whom he has not seen since they were lying on an operating room cot.

Katz received his bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University and his medical degree from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, both in Baltimore.  He completed his residency at the Boston City Hospital in 1967.

He had signed up for the Berry Plan in 1961, which allowed medical students to finish their studies during the draft if they volunteered to serve afterwards.

Katz said when he signed up for the plan he didn’t expect the Vietnam War to last as long as it did.

On June 30, 1967, Katz was celebrating the end of his training at the Cambridge Boat Club in Massachusetts; on July 11, 1967, he said, he had landed in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.

From January to May 1968, Katz said he worked in a MASH, which started with six operating rooms and ended up with 12.  “So we were really busy,” he said.  “Most of the time, we had a two-day back log of patients who were waiting.”

Only about one-third of injuries were gunshot wounds, Katz said; most men came in with multiple fragment wounds caused by explosives. “Three plus areas would be operated on at once,” he said.

Katz has a slew of pictures from the surgeries he performed during the Vietnam War.  One shows the profile of a man who had suffered multiple fragment wounds to the chin and carotid artery; a tracheotomy tube is shown jutting from his neck.

Another picture shows a man whose insides are spilling out over his stretcher because he was shot in the side.

An X-ray image shows a round from an AK 47, which ended up in a man’s neck after it entered his arm and passed through his esophagus.

Another photo depicts the inside of a Vietnamese woman who was shot in the abdomen – worms are crawling out of a hole in her bowels.  Katz said he and other doctors pulled as many of the worms out as they could before sewing her back up.

Katz said the military during the Vietnam War was unlike today’s military – many of the men were draftees.  “Twenty or 21 was old,” he said.  “I was 29, and I was the old guy.”

Katz said he had plenty of surgical experience by the time he went overseas.  “We dealt with gunshots and stab wounds every day,” he said of his Boston residency.

He also said the hospitals provided by the United States military were excellent.  “People think medical care is sub-par in the military.  That’s not true,” he said.  “In terms of taking care of the wounded, nobody does it better."

Most of the doctors, like Katz, had just finished medical training, he said.  “You hadn’t had a lot of experience, but your energy made up for it,” he said.

At the time, Katz had a wife and two young children waiting for him in Boston. “For me, the toughest part of it was being sure I was going to measure up,” he said. “Working around the clock for one year was not a piece of cake.”

Katz said he would often nap under a patient’s bed in the operating room because the tents the men lived in were uncomfortable and scorching hot.  “At noon in Vietnam, it’s about 120,” he said.

“People do crazy things”

In April 1968, Katz was awarded the Soldiers Medal for removing an M79 grenade from a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division. The M79 was a Vietnam-era weapon, a rifle that shot 40 mm grenades.  “It looks like a sawed-off shotgun on steroids,” Katz said.

He said two members of the 101st Airborne Division decided to shoot at each other with M79s from about 35 feet away.  “I think they were high,” Katz said.  “People do crazy things.”

“One of them missed,” he said.

The other one did not.

Katz said a grenade was lodged in the man’s right maxilla, or upper jaw; Katz had to extract the live grenade from the man’s face.  After he did, an explosive ordnance disposal sergeant took the grenade into a bunker, where it went off.

Katz said he didn’t tell his wife, Nancy Katz, about the incident, but she found out anyway.  “The Boston Globe picked it up, and it was in the Sunday paper,” he said.

Catching up

Katz said he performed 371 operations in the 12 months he spent overseas, and he logged every one.

When he came back to the United States in August 1968, he went to a basic training hospital in Monterey, Calif., to finish his military service.  There, he saw two patients he had operated on in Vietnam.

One of the men, a Marine with curly red hair, had suffered a cardiac arrest, and Katz had performed open-heart massage on him for 45 minutes until his heart started again.

The other man recognized Katz in the hospital and tore his shirt open to show Katz where he had stitched him up after surgery.  “He pulls off his shirt, and he says, ‘Here Doc, it all works!’  It’s a great feeling,” Katz said.

Forty-five years later, Katz and Nancy decided they would try to contact more of the men Katz operated on during the war.  Though they have only managed to contact a few, Katz said, the veterans are reasonably shocked to hear from him.  “They almost fall over,” he said.

The first man Katz contacted, a Georgia resident, had a fragment wound in his abdomen and underwent a bowel operation in 1967.  “He was just two years younger than me,” Katz said.

Katz called the man, who told Katz he recovered so well after the surgery that he was sent back to Vietnam in 1969. “He said he was doing well,” Katz said.  “So far so good, but I’m expecting they won’t all be that way.”

Katz said he is still in the early stages of the project, but ultimately he would like to compile the information on each case and have an update on the patients’ progress, much like he does with the patients he sees daily at Delaware Bay Surgical, just off Savannah Road in Lewes.

“I want to see how things worked out,” he said.  “I want to see what the results were like.”

Katz has been Director of the Vascular Lab at Beebe Medical Center since 1990.  He said he performs one or two surgeries every day, mostly endovascular aortic repair and carotid endarterectomy.  “I love it,” he said.  “I can’t wait to go to work.”

Katz said his experience during the Vietnam War was invaluable for him as a young doctor.  “You’ve got to be able to handle pretty much anything,” he said.

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