After the Cold War
An old wound healed at the U-M hospital
by Walt Palesch
On a cold, dark, and drizzly November morning, my wife, Nancy, drove me to the University of Michigan Hospital. It was the final step on a journey that began more than a half century ago, playing with trucks and half-tracks in a village southeast of Berlin.
These weren't toys-they were full-scale, armed Soviet machines, lumbering through town at shift change to patrol the Iron Curtain. I was part of a pack of eleven boys, ages six to sixteen. We were unsupervised, our fathers either dead or prisoners of war in Russia, our mothers working nine hours in the fields for two eggs and a loaf of bread.
People routinely were killed trying to escape to West Germany, and the border patrols evoked a visceral rage. Anton, our leader and surrogate father, came up with the plan. He was only sixteen, so emaciated that even in the desperate last days of World War II the Wehrmacht rejected him, but he was ungodly smart.
The big vehicles ran on diesel; the border guards were fueled by cheap Russian vodka. Anton's plan was to torch the vehicles, soldiers and all, using Molotov cocktails. He reasoned they were perpetually drunk and therefore sitting ducks. We would attack them at midnight, then slip through a section of the briefly unpatrolled border to freedom.
Anton ordered dry runs, in which we practiced mounting the vehicles as they drove past at maybe fifteen miles an hour. Three of us were killed in various attempts. I was hurt badly. Running for the grab handle on a truck, I tripped on a branch and fell. I was lucky that the rear tires only grazed along my arm and leg, but the damage to my knee was beyond the reach of East German technology.
We never made our attack, but four years later, I escaped to West Germany. In later years, I kept visiting different medical facilities to see if they could help. They all declined. This was not a typical
leg injury, but a cobbled-up nightmare. I resigned myself to the pain.
Last year the pain became incapacitating. It looked like the end of my normal life until my physician, Phillip Rodgers, sent me to U-M surgeons John Blaha and Paul Cederna. At the end of the interview, they said something that made everything spin around me: "We can do this operation."
Dr. Blaha and his team performed a total knee replacement. That was successful, but the old scar tissue failed to heal. In November I returned so that Dr. Cederna and team could do a "flap" procedure, rerouting part of the calf muscle to cover the scar area and provide a blood supply. (I hope I explained that correctly.)
At check-in I hand over a copy of my Durable Power of Attorney, with its provision to pull the plug if I'm no longer durable. I think of my sister-in-law, Jamie Bray, who had a major set of leg operations at a suburban hospital. The attempts failed, and her leg was amputated, because her condition was far more complex. Yet she exudes-no!-she radiates courage and good cheer. Dear Jamie, it's my turn now. I promise not to complain or look back.
As they wheel me into the prep room, I nervously ask a nurse how this procedure ranks against an alien abduction. She whispers, "It's about the same," and we both crack up.
Nine hours later, the lights come back on. My guardian angel Nancy is with me, graduating from the "For better or for worse" university one more time. And by Christmas I am walking around, eating fruitcake. With no more pain-none!-it's my merriest Christmas ever.
So thank you, Drs. Rodgers, Blaha, Cederna, and your staffs, and Michelle Hahn, P.T., for the gift of a lifetime-and indeed, the gift of a better life. What you did for me is beyond my ability to express, but it simply adds to why Ann Arbor is so loved by our family. After four countries and seventeen addresses, this refugee found a home here in 1994. And what a home it is!
Oh yes-the fruitcake was, as always, terrible!
[Originally published in May, 2009.]