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Doctors Sacrifice a Leg to Save a Life

updated 05/08/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/08/1995 01:00AM

RUSHING TOWARD THE SMOLDERING wreckage of the federal building, Dr. Andy Sullivan remembered the axiom he'd heard about medics in Vietnam: the only doctors who got killed were those who were where they didn't belong. "When I crossed the police barrier at the scene," says Sullivan, 51, who heads the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, "I thought, 'I don't belong here.' "

But he also knew he was needed. Firefighters had discovered Dana Bradley, a 20-year-old mother of two, trapped beneath fallen concrete slabs in the building's basement. She was pinned flat on her back, her ribs broken, her lungs partially collapsed and her blood pressure dangerously low. Cold water that had leaked from the building's broken pipes had collected around her, lowering her body temperature. And rescue workers couldn't move her because of the huge concrete beam crushing her right leg just below the knee. "Most of the central portion of the building was resting on this pillar, and it was resting on her knee," says Dr. David Tuggle, 41, a trauma surgeon from Children's Hospital who, like Sullivan, had come to help. Sullivan told Bradley they would have to amputate her right leg at the knee to save her. Knowing she had no options, Bradley told them, "Do what you have to do."

As Sullivan prepared to crawl into the crevice where Bradley lay, "I thought, 'I may never see my family again if this falls,' " he says. "I took out my ID, handed it to Tuggle and said, 'If anything happens, give this to my wife.' " Then, while Tuggle monitored Bradley's condition, Sullivan lay across her torso, reached down and began to cut. Fearful of slowing Bradley's already diminished vital signs, the doctors had given her only a sedative instead of a complete anesthetic. "She was screaming the whole time, begging them to stop," says firefighter Pat Hopkins, who witnessed the procedure, "but there was no way they could."

Unable to see, Sullivan operated by touch as he severed the muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding Bradley's knee with the four surgical knives he'd brought in an amputation kit. But one by one, the carbon blades became dull. Finally, he reached into his back pocket for his own pocketknife. "It was new, and it was sharp," he says. After about 10 minutes the limb was free, and paramedics rushed Bradley to University Hospital, where doctors listed her prognosis as good.

Other wounds will be harder to heal. Although her sister Felesha, 23, is recovering from severe head injuries at another hospital, Bradley's mother, Cheryl Hammons, 44, and her children Peachlyn, 3, and Gabrion, 4 months, all of whom accompanied her to the Social Security office that morning, remain unaccounted for. "Emotionally she is a wreck," says a hospital spokesman. "She's starting to realize she may never see her children again."

The doctors, too, may find their lives permanently altered. "I will remember this the rest of my life," says Tuggle. "It will be with me forever."

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