By BILL DUNCAN
View From Here
In September of 1968 this nation was deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War. A young Navy doctor, Dr. D. Douglas Henning, was serving in Vietnam with the Marines where part of his duties was to provide health care to the Vietnamese villagers. A Vietnamese soldier brought a frail, sickly 17-month-old child to his medical tent and Dr. Henning was surprised since she weighed only 16 pounds and looked no older than five months.
With the cold steel tip of his stethoscope on her chest he could barely hear a heart beat and knew instinctively she was suffering from a congenital heart defect. As was his nightly habit, he dictated into a tape recorder a letter to his wife, Linda, a registered nurse working at Children’s Hospital in Orange County, California telling her about the child and his discovery. Linda shared Doug’s letter with Dr. Joseph David, a pediatric surgeon at Children’s Hospital, who immediately concurred with Dr. Henning’s diagnosis of the child, named Nguyen Thi Thangh Phuong, that she had Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart condition commonly known as the blue baby syndrome.
Without surgery the child was doomed, especially in a remote village in South Vietnam. They were determined to bring the baby to Children’s Hospital in Orange, Calif. but soon discovered it would take a near miracle to accomplish that.
Unraveling red tape from both the military, the United States and South Vietnam, the child and her mother were eventually flown to the United States where the life saving surgery was performed. This is where I come in. Working with Verda McKay, the public relations executive at the hospital, I co-authored a book about the youngest child to undergo open-heart surgery. The nurses at the hospital couldn’t pronounce her Vietnamese name, so that called her Suzie, the name we chose for the title of the book. It was published in 1970 and has long been out of print. The world moved on and I lost track of all those involved in this book project, including Verda McKay, although I admit I have wondered what happened to Suzie after the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975. I have often taken the book from my bookshelf and stared at the dust cover featuring the haunting Oriental eyes of Suzie lying in a hospital crib with the surgical scar down her chest.
But for the most part, I put Suzie out of my mind and I have gone on to other writing projects.
That is until the other day when I met Karen Tolley at the Roseburg post office.
On the way out she asked me if I celebrated half year birthdays, explaining that she and her sister, born six months apart, always celebrate their half birthdays. She had checked with my wife and knew that it was exactly six months since my last birthday. All this was her unique way of providing me with a half birthday surprise – a copy of Suzie that she had bought off the internet for $25. It originally sold in hardcover in 1970 for $4.95. Karen owns Lost and Bound Books in Roseburg, dealing in rare books, thus her search on the web for my “rare” book. What intrigued her, other than the fact I was the author, was the inscription on the flyleaf and to whom the book was inscribed – President Richard Nixon.
To be honest with you I don’t remember even signing the book and the inscription wording is in Verda McKay’s handwriting, not mine. However, the signature is definitely mine. The book was in such good condition, one wonders if Nixon actually read it. And who put it on the internet for sale? I don’t want to open a new Watergate investigation, so I will just assume it came from Nixon’s estate.
(Bill Duncan can be reached by writing to P.O. Box 812, Roseburg, OR 97470)