Humerus reunion: Doctor returns Vietnamese vet's arm

July 1, 2013 9:23:13 AM

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HANOI, Vietnam -- An American doctor has arrived in Vietnam carrying an unlikely piece of luggage: the bones of an arm he amputated in 1966. 

 

Dr. Sam Axelrad flew into the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, on Saturday from Houston. He was traveling through central Vietnam with his sons and two grandchildren Monday to meet the amputee, Nguyen Quang Hung, a former North Vietnamese soldier. 

 

After Hung was shot in the arm by American troops, Axelrad, then a 27-year-old military doctor, amputated his infected right arm. His medic colleagues boiled off the flesh, reconstructed the arm bones and gave them to him, he says. 

 

Axelrad, now a urologist, said he brought the skeletal keepsake back to the United States as a reminder of doing a good deed, but looks forward to returning it to Hung. 

 

"It's just time for closure," Axelrad said Sunday at a hotel bar in Hanoi. 

 

Hung was surprised, to say the least, to hear that he will be reunited with his lost limb. 

 

"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." 

 

After decades of silence, Axelrad learned that Hung was still alive after a Vietnamese journalist met Axelrad at a Hanoi hotel last July and wrote an article in a newspaper saying the American doctor wanted to return the bones. 

 

Hung said his brother-in-law read the article and contacted the newspaper. The journalist, Tran Quynh Hoa, arranged the reunion, which was planned for Monday morning in Hung's hometown of An Khe, near the coastal city of Qui Nhon in central Vietnam. 

 

Hung, 73, said he was shot during an ambush about 75 kilometers (46 miles) from An Khe in October 1966. 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 Axelrad's no-frills military hospital. 

 

After the amputation, Hung spent eight months recovering and another six assisting American military doctors, he said. He spent the rest of the war offering private medical services in the village, and later served in local government for a decade before retiring on his rice farm.