Gus Kappler’s One Degree: An Historical Medical Mystery (BookBaby, 262 pp. $13.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a mix of fact and fiction with a strong Vietnam War theme. Dr. Kappler did a tour of duty in the Vietnam War as an Army trauma surgeon at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai in 1970-71.
In this novel, after Pfc. Richard Burrows is wounded, he is treated at a field hospital in Saigon, then medevaced to Japan, and later sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. After a few months at Walter Reed Burrows seems to be improving, but then suddenly takes a turn for the worse and is in danger of losing both his legs. He then dies of cardiac arrest. When he does, one of his doctors wonders, “What did we miss?”
A lab technician at Walter Reed, Matt Rogowicz, blames himself for Burrows’ post-op death because of what happened a few weeks earlier. Rogowicz had examined a slide of Burrows’ blood and detected an abnormality in a white cell. But there were no reports in the medical literature about such a distortion in infection-fighting white blood cells. Rogowicz could not convince his superiors that this was something that required further investigation and then his patient died.
After leaving the military, Rogowicz becomes obsessed with the tragedy and decides to spend however long it takes to get to the bottom of it. He learns about two more seemingly similar deaths and cover-ups of the circumstances surrounding the deaths. He blames himself even more, and soon exhibits PTSD symptoms, as do others he interviews. There’s a question of whether exposure to Agent Orange could be an issue, and there is a rumor that a Vietnamese worker may have placed a Russian-made toxin in the food in American mess halls.
Then China comes into the picture and things really pick up. There’s a possible connection to Big Pharma, a pharmaceutical conglomerate that had, Kappler writes, “allied with giants in other industries to create and sustain a consortium of players that, in the real sense of the word, ruled the world economically and politically.” This “ruling class” decided to try to control the most powerful man in the world and began grooming a corrupt U.S. senator for a run at the U.S. presidency.
As Rogowicz’s mission drags on for years, it becomes a life-changing experience. He’s not going to stop until he gets this particular monkey off his back. He joins with a handful of other Vietnam War veterans who bring in others who have experience with the mystery disease.
Kappler’s dialogue does not come off as natural. He often uses what his characters say as a way of providing information for the reader as characters spit out facts. The brief section of the book that takes place in Vietnam includes several tropes. The VC, for example, turn Claymore mines around to face the GIs; there is a “newbie” First Lieutenant; and pilots survive “several crashes.”
Overall, though, the medical mystery part of this hybrid novel kept me engaged.
Kappler’s website is guskappler.com