Army Doctor Tracks Down His Patient
Army surgeon Kenneth Swan said he was filled with anguish and doubt after he saved the life of a 19-year-old soldier who was horribly wounded in the Vietnam War.
More than 23 years later, he tracked down Kenneth McGarity and found a happily married family man who hopes to help others overcome disabilities such as his--being blind and having no legs.
“I found it just incredible that he could have such a positive attitude with the enormous physical damage he sustained,” Swan said recently. “He’s been through literally hell on Earth and he had come up smiling.
“I was ecstatic that I had made the decision that I made.”
McGarity, 43, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Columbus, 110 miles southwest of Atlanta, said he is grateful that Swan was undaunted by the severity of the wounds.
“This doctor had been through the guilt trip of a lifetime,” he said in a telephone interview. “He’s been asking himself all this time: ‘Did I do the right thing?’ ”
“If he hadn’t stuck all the pieces back together, I wouldn’t have this wonderful wife and these great children.”
Swan, 57, a trauma surgeon at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, in Newark, visited McGarity at his home in September.
An account of the surgeon’s story was published last month in American Medical News, which is put out by the American Medical Assn.
In 1968, three weeks after returning to Vietnam on a second tour of duty, the Army specialist’s helicopter exploded after taking a hit from a rocket-propelled grenade.
Swan amputated McGarity’s legs and supervised other doctors in trying to repair severe eye, arm and head injuries. McGarity lay on the operating table for seven hours.
“I don’t recall there being much of a decision,” Swan said. “I did not ponder very long whether he should live or die. I made a decision for a full-court press.”
The next day, however, Swan said fellow doctors criticized his decision to save McGarity, telling him the soldier would have been better off dead.
Swan, who had been in Vietnam only four weeks and was the least experienced surgeon at the Army evacuation center in Pleiku, said he became angry and defensive.
“I was taught to treat the wounded,” said Swan, who also served in the Persian Gulf War. “They still felt that we were in a position to judge that this soldier would have rather died.”
McGarity said he ran into a similar attitude from doctors at U.S. hospitals trying to help him adjust to being blind and having to use a wheelchair.
“I remember a doctor saying after he had seen me, ‘Why in the hell did they let this guy live?’ ” McGarity said. “Most of the nurses didn’t know what to do with me.”
The doubts nagged Swan on and off until 1989, when he decided to find McGarity and determine whether he had condemned him to a life of dependence and misery.
“I expected to find him in a VA hospital, neglected, bed sores, psychotic, pitied,” Swan said.
After three years, he found a disabled veteran who has worked hard to adjust. McGarity has attended college, learned to scuba dive and wants to earn a degree to help others cope with debilitating injuries.
“It’s the most dramatic event for me in my medical or military career,” Swan said.
McGarity said meeting the surgeon who refused to let him die has helped him in coping with the war and his disabilities.
“I had always wondered who was the guy who got hold of me off that chopper,” McGarity said. “He had a faith. And where he had it, these others didn’t.”