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Kidney treatment innovations traced back to Rochester doctor's work in Vietnam War

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James Donadio

Back in Dr. James Donadio's day, all it took was a handshake to signify a done deal.

Yet only a week after coming to a handshake agreement to join the staff of Mayo Clinic, Donadio got his his draft notice.

He was going to Vietnam.

Donadio was not your typical twenty-something grunt. He was a 31-year-old doctor. He was married and had four children. In those days, physicians remained eligible for the draft until age 35 regardless of marital status.

So after settling his family in a small town in Illinois, Donadio reported to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to exchange his white lab coat for a set of dog tags and a military uniform. Trained to use a .45 pistol, Donadio instead kept the gun under his bed where he slept rather than carry it as a sidearm.


"I didn't feel like I was a trained soldier," Donadio said. "I was there to fix people."

Donadio's medical training was in nephrology, a brand new specialty focused on the treatment of kidney disease. At the time of Donadio's induction into the Army in 1966, Mayo Clinic was among a handful of hospitals that had begun to perform kidney transplants and dialysis.

It was an fortuitous marriage of the man and the moment. Donadio was sent to the Third Field Hospital in Saigon to supervise a renal intensive-care unit. He didn't know it at the time, but Donadio would play a groundbreaking role in treating wounded soldiers in a war zone, particularly those suffering from acute kidney failure.

His experiences have parallels to other wars. Doctors were able to save lives in Iraq and Afghanistan by innovating new techniques in treating head trauma. During the Vietnam war, they did the same thing for kidney failure.

Those memories form the basis of Donadio's new book, "From Mayo Clinic to Vietnam: Memoirs of a Physician Serving in the War." His story was also part of the Twin Cities PBS series called "The Story Wall" published in conjunction with "The Vietnam War" documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

"We were all in this together," said Donadio, who lives in Rochester and is retired. "It was such a brand new specialty."

Kidney failure was often a complication of wounds soldiers suffered in battle. It could also be an outcome for troops sickened by tropical diseases while trudging through Vietnam's sweltering jungles.

Vietnam was the first conflict in which wounded troops could be flown in from the battlefield to surgery in less than an hour, Donadio said, "because the battlefield was all around us."


In previous wars such as World War II, troops who developed kidney failure after being treated for their wounds would be flown out of the war zone, and the time lost in transport was often fatal for the wounded soldier.

"Death was universal and death was inevitable," Donadio said. "Mortality was 100 percent for people who developed kidney failure."

He said the unit would get advance word that a military operation or attack was imminent, in order to get the hospital as empty as possible for the anticipated casualties.

"We had a very fine hospital. We had great surgeons. I mean it was first class medicine," he said.

Donadio's memories related to his hospital work form only one part of the book.

When Donadio arrived in Vietnam in 1966, the anti-war movement hadn't yet set American society aflame with its youth burning their draft cards. But nine years before the country's humiliating retreat from Vietnam, Donadio could already tell that "this was not a good war for the United States."

Donadio volunteered at two orphanages operated by Catholic nuns. He worked at small clinics set up in the countryside for the benefit of villagers. He got to know the people better. He didn't see how such grand constructs like the "Domino Theory," in which one country lost to communism would cause others to tumble, applied to their lives.

"You could tell that the people: All they wanted was to have their water buffalo and the rice patties and be left alone," he said.


Book notes

"From Mayo Clinic to Vietnam: Memories of a Physician Serving in the War," by Dr. Jim Donadio, costs $15.99 and can be purchased at Mayo Clinic gift shops.

For more information on the book, go to https://www.facebook.com/MemoirsofaMilitaryPhysician/

Memories of a Physician Serving in the War James Donadio book cover

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