Mike Farrell, who for eight years operated on victims of the Korean War in the television comedy "MASH," found himself in a real operating room this weekend helping a Los Angeles doctor perform surgery on a captured Salvadoran guerrilla commander.
Under heavy police guard, Farrell and neurosurgeon Alejandro Sanchez worked for 2 1/2 hours to restore use of the right hand of Nidia Diaz, a commander of the Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers, a faction of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.
Diaz was captured after being shot in the arm, foot, back and hand during a guerrilla clash with the Salvadoran air force in San Vicente province in April. U.S. human rights activists and doctors examined her soon after she was taken into military custody, and when they found that she had lost the use of her hand, they began to press for the operation.
Diaz first gained international attention when she represented her group in peace talks last October between the Farabundo Marti front and the government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte. The armed forces announced after her capture in April that she was carrying important guerrilla documents at the time.
Her guerrilla faction, known by its Spanish initials PRTC, claimed responsibility in June for the shooting deaths of four U.S. Marines and nine civilians, including two other Americans, at two outdoor cafes here.
The operation on Diaz was arranged by Medical Aid for El Salvador, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides medical supplies and humanitarian assistance, usually to civilian casualties of the war.
Sand Brim, executive director of Medical Aid, said the group's members got involved in the Diaz case because they felt that she was being denied proper medical treatment.
Farrell said he travelled to San Salvador as an observer of the operation for Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization. He said he has had no medical training and had no intention of participating in the actual procedure.
Diaz was operated on late Friday at an unidentified private clinic here. Farrell asserted that Sanchez needed his help because the case was "too much of a hot potato" for local surgical aides to handle.
"I know this is going to look like a stunt, but that's too bad. It isn't," Farrell said.
Farrell, 46, has been active in human rights and refugee work in Central America for the last three years.
He said Sanchez told him just before the operation that he needed help.
"He said, 'When I say cut, I want you to cut. When I say retract, you retract. You know how to do that?' He gave me a book on tendon surgery in the car on the way over," Farrell said.
He added that there was a power outage during the surgery, making the scene curiously reminiscent of "MASH" episodes in which Farrell played surgeon B.J. Hunnicutt working out of a Quonset hut.