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A Medical Rescue, 1943
By Linda N. Brodlieb
My dad passed away in 1991 but it was only the other day when I was rummaging through my files that I came across a folder labeled Irv, my father's name. Inside, I found papers yellowed with age, little vignettes of my dad's experiences during World War II and one story poignantly reminded me of how much French-American relations have changed since that time. I was also reminded of the days when my dad would turn to me and say, "Did I ever tell you about the time . . ."
It was the summer of 1943 and my father, Irv, was on duty in the office of the Provost Marshall in Oran, Algeria. Because he was fluent in both German and French, when he graduated from the City College of New York and enlisted he was placed in the army's Criminal Investigation Division stationed in French North Africa. On this particular day a terribly distraught Frenchwoman burst into the office, frantically seeking help for her fourteen-year-old daughter who was in a coma, dying from spinal meningitis. From the French doctor attending her child, she had learned that only the new "miracle drug" penicillin could save her daughter, and only the Americans had some.
My father's first thought was to calm the woman down. He was acutely aware of the attention she was drawing from his fellow officers because she was asking him to break the law. Army regulations forbade giving medicine or medical care to civilian personnel. And even though they had only a minimal understanding of the French language, the others in the office would have no trouble putting the word penicillin together with the lady's distressed state and concluding the obvious, that she was desperate to obtain this drug.
Near hysteria, the Frenchwoman was barely able to explain that she was the owner of the Hotel Moderne on the Place De L'Opera, a billet for American personnel and that she had pleaded with the Americans at the hotel to help her get the penicillin for her child, but to no avail. No one would risk the penalty for going against army regulations. She said that a Sgt. Binckley had told her to come to my father and that he would do whatever possible to help. This came as a surprise because the sergeant, a colleague, was a strait-laced army man who no one would have dreamed would actually dare to violate army regulations. But Binckley knew Irv had connections that extended beyond the ranks and, apparently, had the intuition that my father's sense of morality might motivate him to break the law.
Well apparently, the Sgt. knew my father pretty well because, after hearing the woman's story, the anguish and desperation in her voice, he didn't hesitate; he had to do something. So Irv took a chance and told the Frenchwoman that he would find a way to get the medication for her daughter.
He left her there, promising he would return as soon as possible, and rushed off to the base hospital. He contacted an army doctor he knew and quickly told him about the young girl who had no chance of surviving unless . . . but, the moment he mentioned penicillin for a civilian, the doctor turned a deaf ear and said, "You know well that it is against army regulations for me to treat anyone outside of the services." Then he pointed toward a large glass container labeled with the word penicillin and asked my father to excuse him; he was needed elsewhere. Having understood the doctor's unspoken message, Irv immediately took a handful of the tablets. However, on the way back to the base, it occurred to him that he had no way of giving the drug to the child. The pills would have to be swallowed and the girl was in a coma.
Once back at the base, he called an army friend who was a doctor, and explained the problem. His friend agreed to meet him at the hospital and give him the necessary materials for administering the medication but he wouldn't administer it himself: he would not risk losing his license. At the hospital the doctor gave my dad a length of rubber tubing with a small funnel. He explained how to make a solution by dissolving two tablets of penicillin in water. He told him to put Vaseline on one end of the tubing and insert it into the child's nostril and to apply slight pressure, to push the tube through the esophagus and into the stomach. Next he was to insert the small funnel into the exposed end of the tubing and slowly add the medication.
Irv rushed back to the base where the little girl's mother was waiting and they left immediately to bring the "miracle drug" to her child. My father prepared the solution, then sterilized the funnel and tubing while the hopeful mother stood over him. But when Irv began to insert the tube into the child's nostril, the tubing bunched up and wouldn't go through into the esophagus. He tried again several times as the Frenchwoman became increasingly frantic. Realizing the limits of his ability, Irv decided he had to go back to the hospital and try to persuade the doctor to return with him and help the child himself.
Once again promising to return, Irv left the mother and headed back to the hospital. But on the way, in what my dad described as a miracle, he ran into an old friend from City College who had just returned from a successful military campaign in Tunisia. Amazingly, Moses was now Dr. Cohen, Captain in the Medical Corps of the 34th Division. As soon as Irv realized his old friend was now a doctor, he explained about the young girl in a coma. And, though it was the middle of summer and Dr. Cohen was still in his heavy combat uniform, his response was, "Let's go!"
Once at the bedside of the stricken child, Dr. Cohen eased the rubber tubing into her nose and it went right through without bunching up. This was the difference, my father thought, between a doctor and a layman. At this point, somehow having learned what was going on, Sgt. Binckley showed up and he couldn't seem to do enough for my dad and Dr. Cohen. He had managed to find a box of coveted Hershey bars, so terribly scarce during times of war and, in gratitude, was handing them around while they all sat, waiting to see if the penicillin would have an effect upon the child.
At this point in his vignette my father wrote, "There are moments in life when you feel like you're on an express ride to paradise." After two or three hours had passed, the little girl's eyelids began to flicker and then she opened her eyes. She looked around the room until she came upon the face of her mother and whispered, "maman."
The little girl recovered fully and that Christmas her parents prepared a special dinner. They invited my dad, Dr. Cohen, Sgt. Binkley and about thirty other guests who were close to the family. It was a time for gratitude, a celebration of life. Irv and the child were seated at the head of the table and all through dinner the guests raised their glasses to toast the three American men and the one special little French girl.
* * * * *
Linda N. Brodlieb received her B.A. in 1970 and then entered a masters program in social work and in public health administration. After several years of managing a health care agency, she retired in order to raise my children and is now pursuing a career in writing.
from the August 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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