Reunion  After 45 Years

Dr. Reuel Long left and Jim Dehlin
My flight for Vietnam departed on December 1, 1970.  I was 28 years old at the time and had said goodbye to my wife and four children in Flint, Michigan.  After a short stay at Long Binh, I was assigned to the 27th Surgical Hospital at Chu Lai where my duties involved triage and anesthesia.

As Christmas approached, some of the personnel were allowed to travel by truck up to Da Nang to see the Bob Hope show.  Being new in country, I was one of those left behind to cover the unit.

It was December 23 when I was faced with caring for a twenty year old who had stepped on a mine.   He had no injuries to his head, chest or abdomen, but he had clearly lost both legs.  There was no way to salvage either of them.  He would need to have bilateral above knee amputations.

He was stabilized with intravenous fluids and blood.  As I talked with him I learned that he was from Flushing, Michigan, just a few minutes west of Flint.  His name was Jim Dehlin.  It somehow seemed appropriate that I was there to take care of someone from so close to home.  It seemed personal.  Some family near my home was going to get some bad news, probably in the next 24 hours.

Jim was frantic as the surgeon and I moved him to the operating table.  He was begging us not to take his legs.  We both tried to reassure him saying that we would do everything we could, knowing full well that his legs could not be saved, but his life could be if all of the dead and damaged tissue was removed.  I continued to reassure him and quickly administered the syringe of sodium thiopental to start the anesthesia.  As I was inserting the endotracheal tube, the nurses were already prepping the dead legs for amputation.  The monitoring consisted of a blood pressure cuff, a precordial stethoscope and ekg leads hooked to a simple oscilloscope.  After a satisfactory level of anesthesia was achieved with the anesthesia gases, the surgeon quickly went about his business.  He was a very efficient surgeon and quickly performed the bilateral above knee amputations.  There was very little conversation.  

When I made my first visit with Jim in the post surgical ward, he really was not much interested in conversation.  He seemed quite angry.  I couldn’t blame him.  His life had completely changed.

I wanted to do something else for him but felt helpless to console him.  Then it occurred to me that his family might find some comfort if they could just hear his voice.  I had a little cassette recorder for sending audio tapes home to my family.  So I asked Colonel Geer, who was in charge of the unit, if I could help Jim make a recording to send home.  He gave me permission.  When I approached Jim about making the recording, he said he would like to do it.  Even though he was medicated, I helped him get started with the recording and then left the recorder next to his pillow where he could just talk without me listening.  When I returned later, Jim was sleeping.  I took the cassette and mailed it to the address Jim had given to me.  Jim was soon evacuated to Japan before being flown back to the states, and I had no more contact with him for the next 44 years.

After the military I was very busy with my practice and family and tried to put the Vietnam experience behind me.  I retired ten years ago.  Then early last year for some reason I started thinking about Jim and wondered what had happened to him.  I tried to find him using the internet but did not have any luck.  Then in July last year while I was mowing grass near the pond on the back of the farm, my wife came out to get me.  She said that there was a message on the phone that I needed hear.  I asked who left the message.  She said that it was from someone I had taken care of in 1970.  I replied that I was in Vietnam in 1970.  My wife just said, “I know.”  I turned off the mower and came to to house to hear the message.  It was Jim Dehlin.  A family member had found the old cassette tape I had helped Jim make, and they had managed to locate me and get my phone number.  I returned Jim’s call, and we had a long talk about what we had been doing since our paths had crossed in Vietnam.  He indicated that he lived near Higgins Lake but came down to the Ann Arbor area for medical appointments occasionally.  We decided to get together for coffee during one of his visits to the area.  Then on September 4, 2015, we met at the Dexter Bakery for coffee and 90 minutes of catching up before his medical appointment.
I got to the bakery before Jim and was waiting outside when he arrived at 8:30 a.m.  I looked down the sidewalk and saw him perched on top of an electric wheel chair moving at a pretty good clip in my direction.  I extended my arm pointing at him as he approached and greeted him with a warm handshake as he lied to me indicating that I had not changed a bit.  We went inside and got coffee and a pastry and then went to a table outside where we could visit and enjoy the breeze.  Jim showed me pictures from Vietnam as well as family pictures and pictures of his first airplane.  He loves to fly.

After a few rough years following his return to the states, Jim got it all together and made the most of his life.  He taught at Northern Michigan University before retiring.  He has a wonderful wife and family and grandchildren.  He thanked me for the reassurance and comfort I gave him as he was going under anesthesia.  He said he knew his legs were lost but still found comfort in what I said to him.  I was touched by his gratitude.  It was an emotional moment.  Here was a man who had lost both of his legs thanking me.  His parting words to me were, “You saved my life.”  I told him that I was so proud of him and all that he had accomplished.  We will get together again.

Reuel S. Long
VVA 310 Life Member