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Posts tagged ‘Dr. Arnie Leff’

He Spoke Up About Bombing

Excerpt from Paging Dr. Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest.

arnieinuniformudorn1969074In late 1969 and early 1970, Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base was the second busiest airport in the world, next to Tan Sim Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon. It wasn’t the second busiest with the number of people passing through, but with the number of flights taking off and landing. They weren’t flying for recreation or sightseeing; they were reconnaissance planes and bombers – lots of bombers. They left the field weighed down like heavyweight fighters and returned like featherweights. It was methodical, like clockwork: day in and day out, hour after hour.

A few weeks after his arrival at Udorn, Dr. Leff began to get a feel for his clientele. There were three groups he attended and with whom he became intimately acquainted. The first was the United States Air Force personnel, which numbered about 5,000. The second group was the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and contract personnel (mercenaries) who were employed by Air America. The third contingent consisted of Royal Laotian Army soldiers who were wounded in the war against the communist Pathet Lao across the border in Laos, protected by the Thai military and treated at Udorn.

The U.S. was supposedly not at war with Laos, but was nonetheless bombing their villages, giving their government military weapons and ammunition and supporting the Royal Laotian Army with money, surveillance, and medical care. The U.S. Air Force was bombing villages that contained nothing but villagers. Intelligence officers ordered changes in the captions on reconnaissance pictures. When questioned, pilots would quote the party line and say they were bombing communist strongholds.

It was common knowledge on the base that their primary mission was to destroy any communist stronghold in Laos. Legality, civilian deaths, and the Geneva Convention were all collateral damage to the mission. The goal was the priority, not the process.

Captain Leff couldn’t help but get a strong whiff of these realities. His patients told him what was going on. He had eyes and ears and could see and hear the stories, the bravado from the pilots; the detached, cold expressions of the Air America personnel. On the rare occasions he visited the officer’s club, his ears were bombarded with the sickening boasts of pilots talking about how many people they had killed that day and how many bombs they had dropped on the bastards. He heard stories from the flight surgeons that did air time over Laos that made his skin crawl. He had arrived in August as a patriotic serviceman; by September, his patriotism had been bruised, bloodied and battered.

“Within three months time, I knew the war was all hocus pocus,” Captain Leff recalled. “People were lying left and right. It was all so obvious. By that time, I had made friends with a number of GIs, both stripers and officers, who had the same hit on this mess as I did. So, I wrote a letter. I wrote a letter to the Chairman of the foreign relations committee of the U.S. Senate, J. W. Fulbright. It wasn’t complicated; it just said, ‘I don’t understand. What is this war in Laos all about? How can we have this secret war?’ I never expected to hear from him. Even though military personnel are allowed to write congressional letters, I had a strong feeling that the Air Force was reading my mail and wasn’t sure if he’d even get it. I didn’t give any details. I sent it on November 11, 1969. On December 10th, I received his reply. I was shocked. It was a personal reply, not a form letter. He said he was doing all he could to stop the war on Laos and appreciated my concern. In the beginning of 1970, I sent him another letter with more detail and said I’d be glad to speak to his commission. Again, he replied and said they would take me up on my offer when I returned to the States.”

Dr. Leff had just opened a Pandora’s Box of deceit, corruption, and legitimate paranoia.

More at Paging Dr. Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest

Free Love & Free Clinics

Excerpt from biography of Dr. Arnold Leff.
Paging Dr. Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest.

Free Love & Free Clinics

By the time Captain Leff arrived at Wright Patterson Air Base for his last year of military service, he was a changed man. He didn’t continue fighting city hall on base, but slowly worked his way into creating an alternative city hall in the way medicine was provided in the public sector. In addition to working in the outpatient clinic from 8 to 5 at Wright Patterson, he also jumped in feet first with the fledgling Cincinnati Free Clinic in the evening. That involvement turned him around to wearing longer hair and becoming more enmeshed in the counterculture of the time.

The Cincinnati Free Clinic provided a 24 hour suicide prevention line and support for people dealing with issues of drug abuse, V.D., and birth control. It ws based on the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco that had been started by Dr. Dave Smith.

The Cincinnati clinic was instrumental in changing the laws concerning parental consent so that young people could get the confidential treatment and health education they needed. All the docs working at the free clinics were volunteers. They provided countless hours to public health services that most communities now take for granted with their county hospitals and clinics.

Dr. Leff lived in a commune on McCormick Place in Cincinnati and commuted to the base to work during the day. He grew long hair and a beard and hung out with all his old friends to listen to music at the Family Owl. He was welcomed back into the fold, a composite of musicians, hippies and anti-war activists. Few of them realized the risks he had taken to stop the illegal bombing in Laos and his battles within the military for truth and accountability.

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Watch Your Ass & Testify

Excerpt from Paging Dr. Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest.

Watch Your Ass And Testify

In the midst of his conflicts on base, Dr. Leff received a letter from his good friend Dennis Wolter, who wanted him to be the best man at his wedding in March. Dennis had been running the motorcycle shop he and Arnie jointly owned in Cincinnati while Arnie was in Thailand. They had always been like brothers.

Not long after the invitation to the wedding, he received a reply from Senator Fulbright inviting him to speak before the Foreign Relations Committee, whenever he had an opportunity to make it to Washington. He decided to do it all in one trip and was granted a two week leave for the end of March, beginning of April, 1970.

It was soon after being granted leave that the military’s paranoia kicked in. Because of Captain Leff’s views and activities, he was seen by the Air Force as a trouble-maker and threat. They were certain he was smuggling drugs because of his contacts and visits with anti-war personnel and civilians at the base in Korat, and also thought he was the ring leader of a subversive, anti-war movement who was fermenting racial unrest.

“All untrue,” he states, “except for being anti-war. I had smoked marijuana the first few months I’d been in Thailand, but by this time, I had quit altogether. It was too risky in my position. I was a doc and didn’t want to lose control. I also stayed straight because I became aware of the informants.”

Colonel Mellish, the wing commander, had the Special Investigations unit put the captain under surveillance and planted informants in his adjoining bunk. Whenever he returned to the base from spending time at The Bungalow, there was a new man sleeping one cot over.

More than likely, the brass was aware of Leff’s intention to speak before the Fulbright Commission and knew he was gathering information to do so. Intelligence officers had told him of orders they’d received to change captions on reconnaissance photographs from “village” to “communist stronghold,” even though there was no evidence that the village had harbored communists or not. Leff also discovered that the US had Green Berets in Laos who technically were not there. His Air America (CIA) friends gave him photographs of their base in Laos. Fred Branfman had given him his report, including photos, places and names of villages and people who were being killed and maimed by U.S. bombings.

Captain Leff was certain he had enough information to delay, if not stop, the illegal attacks in Laos, if he lived to tell about it.

“I honestly believed my life was in danger,” he says. “The guy that ran the office of special investigation was alcoholic and for $500 he could have had a local guy snuff me out easy as pie. I really believed they might go that far… stranger things had happened.”

CONTINUED IN: PAGING DR. LEFF – PRIDE, PATRIOTISM AND PROTEST.

Going Away Party for Arnie

Excerpt from Pagind Doctor Dr. Leff: Pride, Patriotism and Protest.

In order to avoid being drafted into the Army. Dr. Leff chose to enlist in the Air Force. By the time he had finished his pharmacology fellowship, he had received active duty orders to go to Thailand via basic training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. The night before he left Cincinnati turned out to be quite memorable.

Arnie’s friends called him “The Brick” in the Cincinnati General Hospital because of all the hours he spent there and his total commitment to his studies, work and profession. It was rare for him to allow himself a night out. Up until that point, he hadn’t thought much about his upcoming stint in the military. He had been completely focused for the majority of his young adult life on getting high grades, placing on the Dean’s List, taking physics and organic chemistry and anything else that was need to be a good doctor. He gave his heart and soul to learning the arts of medicine. He had not given the war in Vietnam much of his attention. Sure, he read the news, saw occasional reports and knew about the demonstrations, but he hadn’t taken much time to think about it in any detail.

His musician friends, specifically Sandy Nassan, insisted that they have a big bash for him before he left. After their gigs were up at 1:00 and 2:00AM, half the musicians in town gathered on the rooftop of a Calhoun apartment to wish their friend Arnie a fond farewell. His friend Dennis Wolter was there, the artist and sculptor Steven Truchil and his friend Sondra. It lasted most of the night, until the police put a halt to the unauthorized gathering.

The going away party was icing on the cake. He hadn’t expected it and was deeply touched. His friends were far more worried about him than he was about himself. They asked him several times if he was sure about this military stuff and if he knew what he was getting himself in to. He was pretty casual about it all and, in fact, somewhat excited about his new adventure.

He said, “Hey, it will just be a year. No big deal. It could be interesting, and I’ll be doing some good.”

His friends all hoped he was right. Even though many disagreed with the war, they respected his decision and motivation for serving. They, along with their good friend Arnie, had no idea of the depth of deceptions and lies their government was perpetuating.

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Paging Doctor Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest

The following excerpt is from Paging Doctor Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest. Paging Doctor Leff is the biography of an idealistic boy from New York who joined the Civil Air Patrol for God and country and never looked back. Dr. Arnie Leff, MD has fought many wars, overseas and at home. He stood up to his superiors in the Air Force during Viet Nam; locked horns with corporations and state bureaucracies as health commissioner of Cincinnati; jumped into the trenches at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic; and has pulled no punches with his often controversial opinions about drugs, euthanasia, health care and medical marijuana. He is presently a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.

***

In 1986, people were just starting to feel their way through the dark when it came to understanding and treating AIDS.

Dr. Leff, who had been in public health for over 20 years (as an officer in Viet Nam, director of the Cincinnati Public Health Department and Cincinnati free clinics) decided to go into private practice for the first time in his life. This was no easy leap of faith and involved a different kind of personal responsibility than he was used to.

“I found a doctor on Seabright Avenue in the city of Santa Cruz, Dr. Blackwell, who at 80 years of age was still running a large geriatric practice. He was going to retire soon and let me use his office in the afternoons,” Arnie says. “Before I even left the health department, a man named Ray Martinez walked in my door and said, ‘I hear you’re going into private practice. I want to be your first patient.’ Ray had AIDS, and he became my first patient with HIV.”

After Dr. Blackwell retired, Dr. Leff took on many of his elderly patients and an ever-increasing number of people with AIDS. “I became the ‘AIDS doctor’ and was in the trenches for over eight years,” says Dr. Leff. “It was like a war. People got tested, discovered they were HIV Positive, and went through hell trying to stay alive and figure out what worked and what didn’t.”

In those days there was little information about AIDS, but Dr. Leff scoured the literature and spoke with everyone who knew anything about the disease. “I had to learn it all,” he says. “The first report I saw was in the New England Journal of Medicine about Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia. These two diseases are very uncommon except in immune compromised people, and the Kaposi sarcoma was uncommon period. At first they thought it was a gay related immune disorder and called it GRID (Gay Related Immune Disorder). It took about five years for everybody to figure out how big the problem was and that it was not restricted to gay men, even though they were the primary people affected in the U.S. at that time. It wasn’t until about 1984 or ’85 that we had a blood test to identify it.

“So, I had a lot of public health background and obtained what knowledge of the disease I could, but had no clinical experience in treating it. In fact, I had little clinical knowledge at all. I was really jumping into boiling oil when I took this on. It was like I was a baby thrown to the wolves, but in this case the wolves took me in, protected me, and helped me learn what I needed to know to survive and help them survive, as long as possible. It was quite a shift from seeing 20 people a month [his last major clinical experience, when he saw police officers in Cincinnati] to 20 people a day.

“In the beginning of the epidemic, it was primarily oncologists who saw AIDS patients, because it manifested with Kaposi sarcoma, which is a cancer. Now, that is rarely seen. After a brief period, however, the oncologists passed on their AIDS patients because they didn’t know how to treat all the other underlying symptoms. There were also a few infectious disease docs in town treating the disease, but a number of gay men had problems with their attitudes and bedside manner. Because of these realities and concerns, I became the defacto ‘AIDS doc’ in town. I kept up on the literature and frequently spoke with Paul Volberding, who is now a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, but at the time was the director of the AIDS clinic at San Francisco General.”

“We had all these young patients whose immune systems were shot, but were otherwise healthy,” Dr. Leff says. “The dying process for these patients was very difficult. We had hospice services at the time, but they were learning along with the rest of us about what worked and what didn’t. During those years, I believe I made more referrals to hospice than any doctor in the county, other than oncologists.

“The physical challenges were staggering. Histoplasmosis is a fungal disease that occurs in the Midwest. It is like a flu. Most people get it, don’t feel well for awhile, and then recover. Candida is a disseminating yeast that can effect healthy people, but is not life threatening. For people with AIDS, both Histoplasmosis and Candida were deadly. We also saw them picking up meningitis from a fungal disease, as well as lymphomas and central nervous system lesions (toxoplasmosis). To top it all off, many of those afflicted also developed dementias.

“I remember one patient who was admitted to the psychiatric unit at the hospital because he had HIV dementia. He couldn’t control himself or his bodily functions. He was a mess. We got him into a halfway house, but the mental health people refused to put him in their system. They said they couldn’t handle AIDS dementia because it was physical and not psychological. I told them the guy was clearly psychotic and had no place else to go. The nursing homes wouldn’t take him because he was psychotic, and the mental health folks wouldn’t take him because AIDS was his primary diagnosis. He wound up staying as an inpatient at Dominican Hospital for four and a half months. It was tragic; a young man living, most of the time able to ambulate, in the hospital for over four months, and dying there, too.

“That was some of the war-like quality the epidemic presented. I felt like I had to beat down some barriers, even if it took force. I spent eight years teaching every doctor in town, every specialist, nurse, x-ray tech, and health professional I could speak with, about AIDS. Some didn’t like it, some walked out, and some refused to treat them. It was frustrating and sad. I told them the truth that yes, they could possibly die from coming in contact with an infected needle, but that was already true in their profession; it was part of the risk they took every day already. I’ve had four or five needle sticks in my career. It was scary. I got myself tested again and again and again, to make sure.

“I was having enough trouble dealing with all the deaths and loss by itself, let alone having to continually confront a system that didn’t want to budge. I was having, on average, one patient a week dying from the disease. I probably had 50 or more deaths in one year. Some of those were geriatric patients as well, but it was enough to warrant a significant support system. When I first went into practice, there had only been one person who died of AIDS in the entire county.”

“People didn’t understand,” said Dr. Leff. “I was watching people die, and often there was nothing I could do about it. We had no treatment, no cure. It was the first major epidemic since Polio, which died out in the ‘60s, though in some areas it has now resurfaced. I saw myself as a soldier in the war against disease, and the reality was that there were casualties on both sides. The docs, the patients, the nurses, were all affected emotionally, if not physically. There continue to be casualties to this day.”

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