It was 1967 and the Vietnam War was raging.
Our patient, a lady in her 40s, had taken a .357 Magnum riffle bullet through her elbow at point-blank range. Her sister ran a bar in the Panhandle and was being threatened by an enraged patron. She stepped in front of the gun barrel to stop the bullet.
There was little of her elbow left and despite intensive care, she had developed gas gangrene with a thready pulse and high fever. To save her arm — and possibly her life — we needed to get her into a hyperbaric chamber immediately.
Every chamber in Florida was occupied except the one at the Naval Mine Defense Laboratory in Panama City, and it had been declared off limits to civilians. The facility was a key to defense strategies being developed to protect our ships in the Mekong Delta.
The base commander staunchly refused to budge. We scheduled an amputation.
Then … sitting at our desks in the conference room around the corner from the boss’ office, we heard him shouting on the phone that “we damned well need the use of your empty chamber immediately or we will lay the consequences at your feet.”
“Yes Mr. McNamara that might work out fine … thank you.”
We rolled our eyes.
The boss had just shouted down the Secretary of Defense.
It was dark and raining hard when the U of F’s private twin-engine plane landed the patient and myself at the Panama City Airport. A motorcycle police escort raced the patient and me through traffic to the base where we immediately entered the chamber … a huge, old horizontal green tank accompanied by a dive instructor, orderlies, dressings, etc.
After three days, the wound started turning pink and the fever broke.
After seven days, she was well enough to travel by ambulance back to Gainesville.
She asked the driver to stop at her home, which was a paint-less, two-room shanty back on
a dirt trail in the pinewoods. I left her to enter the unlocked home and retrieve a treasured present she insisted on giving us — a Mason jar of fat back.
She survived because a very formidable and loving physician by the name of William Enneking would not let it be any other way.
Distinguished scholar, author, skilled surgeon, mentor, role model and friend … may the wind be always at your back.
William Anspach Jr., MD
(As I write these few words I can hear his voice correcting my grammar and shortening my sentences.)