Military Faces of Neurosurgery – Vietnam 1968-1969: A Place and Year Like No Other

debGuest Post from Deborah L. Benzil, MD, FACS, FAANS
Vice President, AANS
Chair, AANS/CNS Communications and Public Relations Committee
MKMG
Columbia University Medical Center
Mt Kisco, New York

Their backgrounds couldn’t have been more divergent, yet fate brought the lives of Stan Pelofsky, MD, FAANS and Patrick Kelly, MD, FAANS together in the Da Nang field hospital during the Vietnam Conflict. While serving their country, these two worked arduous hours in the operating rooms to treat, heal and often restore life to both military personnel and civilians. Their efforts were nothing short of heroic and their stories are important for everyone to hear. In 2002, Dr. Pelofsky, then President of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, invited Dr. Kelly to deliver the Richard C. Schneider lecture to recount this experience. The presentation was one of the most memorable experiences for everyone fortunate to be in the audience that day. More than a decade has passed, but the message remains as poignant today, and so we honor Dr. Patrick Kelly in our Military Faces of Neurosurgery.

Patrick J. Kelly, MD

Patrick J. Kelly, MD

To appreciate Pat, and to place his Vietnam experience in perspective, it is important to understand his challenging childhood. Pat spent his youth in Lackawanna, not far from Buffalo, New York. He was the oldest son of Irish Catholic parents. Removed from an abusive home, he spent his teen years in an upstate New York orphanage. It had been said that before he became known for his healing hands, they were first fighting hands.  During those intense and challenging years, Pat found solace through the Boys & Girls Club of East Aurora, NY. Ultimately, he had to petition the court to attend college at the University of Michigan and then joined the Navy to finance his medical school education at New York University (NYU). After his service, he completed his neurosurgical training first at Northwestern University and then at the University of Texas. Ultimately, Dr. Kelly rose to the position of chair at NYU and was an acknowledged leader in stereotaxis and neuro-oncology. His love of neurosurgery is equaled only by his love of sailing.

Stan Pelofsky, MD

Stan Pelofsky, MD

In Stan’s introduction of the Schneider lecture, he related that “the experience and horror of it all…the fear, apprehensions, and uncertainty bound us together forever.” This powerful presentation speaks to the horrors of war and the dedication of the many men and women who serve to ensure our freedom. When preparing for this lecture, it was noted that Dr. Kelly was inspired by the September 11 tragedy and ensuing war on terrorism to try on his Vietnam-era uniform. When his daughter, catching him in the act, asked about his campaign ribbons, Pat found himself attempting to explain the concept of war. “There has never been any other time in my life that I felt I did as much good as I did that year,” he said.

In a presentation intercut with the sights and sounds of of the time — helicopter rotors beating the air; Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”; a young Vietnamese girl, clothes burned from her body, running down a road — and interwoven with history, Dr. Kelly pulled no punches in recounting his Vietnam experience. “Sin is the cause of all wars, but war itself is amoral; I never understood this until Vietnam,” he said.

National Support Activity Station Hospital complex at Da Nang, Vietnam

National Support Activity Station Hospital complex at Da Nang, Vietnam

With a telling quote attributed to Hippocrates visible on the screen — “He who wishes to be a surgeon should go to war” — Dr. Kelly said, “I wanted to be a surgeon… I volunteered for Vietnam.” He joined as a general medical officer and was stationed at the National Support Activity Station Hospital in Da Nang, where he said there were 14,000 operations in the year he was there, and 95 percent of those who arrived alive survived. Of his first day in triage he remembered, “I had never felt so useless in my entire life, but uselessness motivates you to do better and teaches you humility and to be willing to learn.”

After this memorable presentation, Dr. Kelly poignantly notes,

“We [neurosurgeons] will do what we’ve been trained to do: We take care of [patients] to the best of our ability and we will be stronger for our experience. Stronger as surgeons, and stronger as people.”

Neurosurgery Blog brings you, in its entirety, Dr. Kelly’s personal memoir of one year that defined the rest of his life: Vietnam 1968-1969: A Place and Year Like No Other.”

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