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By Peter J. McDonnell, MD
I suspect most ophthalmology residents will recall, for one reason or another, certain patients they cared for during their training. This is about my strong memory of one of my patients.
It was many years ago (obviously) and I was a third-year resident rotating at a Veterans Administration hospital in Baltimore. The rotation was very enjoyable, with many patients with significant eye disease (a lot of glaucoma and cataracts) and a strong surgical experience. I felt privileged to be able to help people who had served my country in the armed forces.
Most of the patients were in my father’s generation, and not infrequently, they shared interesting stories about their military service. A quick perusal of each chart as each patient came into the examination room gave me a chance to see for which branch he (there were almost no female veterans in those days) had served.
On this day, I was in clinic by myself. The day was moving along nicely, with most patients just needing some new glasses or other straightforward help. One or two patients might have been scheduled for cataract surgery.
Then a distinguished-looking, gray-haired gentleman came into my exam room. He had the erect posture of a soldier. His record revealed that, like my own father, he had served in the Army and in the Pacific theater. It also identified him as a survivor of the so-called Bataan Death March.
I don’t have a good memory of the specific complaint that caused him to see me that day. I do recall that it was very addressable and I was able to fix him right up. He was very happy and appreciative.
As I stood next to him while he sat in the exam chair, he took my hand and thanked me for helping him. I responded that I had read about what happened in the Philippines in World War II and wished to thank him for his sacrifice.
He looked at me for what was probably a few seconds but seemed much longer, and then he began to cry. He continued to hold my hand and he continued to quietly cry for several minutes. I placed my other hand over his hand.
“This man suffered terribly,” I thought to myself.
The Bataan Death March occurred when, on April 9, 1942, U.S. General Edward King Jr., surrendered his 75,000 member-combined U.S.-Filipino Army. Without naval or air support, the army resisted for 3 months before being crippled by starvation and disease. The surrendered soldiers were then forced to march 65 miles to prison camps.
According to reports, thousands died from starvation and beatings, with those too weak to walk bayonetted by their captors. In 1945, the prisoners were liberated, and in April 1946 the general who oversaw the march was tried, convicted of a war crime, and executed.
After a few minutes, the tears stopped and my patient continued to look at me.
“I apologize for bringing back such bad memories,” I told him. “I had wanted you to know that I was grateful to you for enduring so much for your country.”
“And I am grateful to you for helping me today, doctor,” he replied.
He rose from the chair and strode out of the room. I soon began another rotation and never saw him again, but I often recall this patient when I think about young soldiers going off to war.