My Century by Kristaps Keggi M.D., 2022, 360 pages
Of the many remarkable American Latvian success stories, the life and career of Kristaps Keggi M.D. is one of the most exceptional. A child fleeing war and Soviet terror departs Latvia, spends time in refugee camps, then arrives in the United States with his family, not much to his name, but grows up to become one of the most respected orthopedic surgeons in the world.
Now nearly 90 years in age, his storied career took him all over the world – from the United States, to Vietnam, throughout Russia, as well as back to Latvia. Dr. Keggi has collected his many experiences and, in 2022, published a memoir entitled My Century, subtitled “A memoir of war, peace and pioneering in the operating room”. At times terrifying, other times humorous, it even has some unexpected intrigue, particularly in Keggi’s travels in the former Soviet Union. Keggi also writes about his experience being a surgeon during the Vietnam War. Keggi is also blessed with an exceptional memory, and he shares many detailed anecdotes about the people who he has met throughout his life, even if briefly – the stories are often touching, occasionally tragic.
Keggi writes in a brisk, matter of fact style, even laconic at times. Perhaps befitting a surgeon, the writing is crisp and to the point, without unnecessary flowery adornments (for example, one chapter is simply entitled ‘Other Russian People and Places’). He also helpfully provides historical background for many of the events in his life, such as Latvian history, which may not be familiar to all readers. He also goes into medical detail about his many innovations in orthopedic surgery, particularly hip procedures. Keggi also writes extensively about his teaching and his sharing of knowledge with medical professionals all over the world, as well as his extensive charitable work. Keggi also has a droll sense of humor, amusingly using medical terminology in sentences like this about a Playboy Playmate visiting Vietnam – ‘They had to settle for a view of her deltoids, having hoped for bared gluteus maximus muscles which … would have been worth visualization.’
Anecdotes that Keggi shares include the shocking story of the time he was a person of interest in a murder investigation (the still unsolved murder of Dr. Mary Sherman of New Orleans, who Keggi was supposed to meet while traveling through the area), as well his work and friendship with Aleksey Stepanovich Shindjajev – the #2 man in the KGB, with whom Keggi worked with extensively, and Keggi details many adventures that could even be considered Cold War thrillers.
The most harrowing and poignant section of the memoir is Dr. Keggi’s experiences as a surgeon in Vietnam during the war. Life and death situations, difficult decisions, and the near constant presence of death and terror fill Keggi’s time in Vietnam, including the story of being part of a “lost hospital”, a surgical hospital that was the scene of a chaotic withdrawal, leaving the surgical team members abandoned near the Cambodian border.
Though Dr. Keggi has had an amazing, successful life, he does concede that there has been quite a bit of good luck and fortune that has helped him throughout his life. From the Soviet army pausing before their assault on Riga at the end of World War II (which gave Keggi’s family time to escape) or surviving a fire in a burning tent full of explosive medical materials in Vietnam, and even enduring the mental breakdown of a soldier with a loaded rifle that luckily jammed, also in Vietnam.
Keggi’s memoir is also timely, having been released not long after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Though Keggi does make a case for the benefits of the United States having a positive relationship with Russia, particularly due to the many positive relationships and friendships he has had with Russians throughout his career, he added a postscript to the memoir about a colleague Olafs Libermanis from Latvia who immediately traveled to the war zone in Ukraine to help, and Keggi is there with him in spirit.
My Century by Kristaps Keggi M.D. is an amazing story of war, medicine, and the many noteworthy people who have passed through Keggi’s life. It makes for engaging and informative reading for Latvians, medical students and professionals, or anyone interested in history. Dr. Keggi’s story is an inspiration, and his attention to detail imbues his memoir with vivid images and scenes, making for a remarkable and memorable life story.
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