Just Let Him Die?

This Wednesday is the 20 anniversary of Watergate, and I've been besieged by journalists wanting interviews. How did you feel when you were sentenced to prison? Times are when you do something wrong, and are dogged by guilt for years afterward. Well, I want to tell you about a time a doctor did something right--and was dogged by guilt for years afterward. What he did was save a man's life. The year was 1968, and Kenneth Swan was a young army surgeon, just arrived in Viet Nam. When a 19-year-old soldier was brought in on a stretcher, Dr.Swan immediately got to work. The soldier had been blown up by a grenade, losing his eyesight and both his legs. Dr. Swan labored 7 hours at the operating table trying to repair the injuries. The next day, Dr. Swan was sharply criticized by his fellow surgeons For not doing a good job? No--for doing the job at all. That kid was so badly mangled, the other doctors told him, you shouldn't have even bothered to treat him. He would have been better off dead. Well, the words burrowed their way into Dr. Swan's mind, and for the next twenty years he wondered if he had done the right thing. Had he condemned the soldier to a life of helplessness? Was the man rotting somewhere in a VA hospital, his body covered with bed sores, his mind destroyed by pain-killing drugs? Dr. Swan finally decided to settle the question. He began a search for the soldier he had patched up so many years ago in a Vietnamese jungle. It took more than 2 years, but in the end he found him. And what he found is nothing short of astonishing. Yes, the man is blind and in a wheelchair. But he is not languishing in any hospital. He is married and has two lovely daughters. He attended college, learned to scuba dive, and is now training to help others cope with debilitating injuries. At age 43, the former soldier has a zest for life and a faith in God. When a reporter asked him about his success in life, he responded simply, "I give the credit to God." What a testimony. The debate between Dr. Swan and his colleagues in Viet Nam 20 years ago is still being waged in the medical community. Dr. Swan is of the old school. He says "I was taught to treat the wounded"--not leave them to die. His colleagues represent a new philosophy. they practice selective medicine--weeding out the wounded who, they decide, do not have a life worth living. It's an attitude that dogged even the solider whose life Dr. Swan saved. When he flew back to the United States for rehabilitation, medical workers acted like his case was hopeless. He overheard one doctor ask, "Why did they let this guy live?" Well, Dr. Swan knows now that he did the right thing in letting that guy live. And the story is still relevant today. Because the issue that confronted the doctors on the battlefields of Vietnam still confronts doctors in the hospitals and clinics of America today. Advocates of abortion and euthanasia are urging doctors to weed out the infirm and the handicapped. We can only hope the story of the young soldier blown up in Vietnam will stand as a powerful lesson to medical workers that all life should be treated as a gift from God. And let's hope the Dr. Swans of this world will never feel guilty--for doing the right thing.


Chuck Colson



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