A Vintage View

Tribute to a best friend, a surgeon who saved many lives

by Len Lear
Posted 5/9/24

I met David Carl Rilling when we were both freshmen at Central High School in 1954. I was more than a little jealous because he had everything going for him.

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A Vintage View

Tribute to a best friend, a surgeon who saved many lives


I met David Carl Rilling when we were both freshmen at Central High School in 1954. I must admit I was more than a little jealous because he had everything going for him. He was handsome, very smart, very funny, and an excellent athlete. He was also an Eagle Scout, and all the other kids liked him. I figured he must have some flaws, but I was never able to find any. He grew up on Rising Sun Avenue in the city's Crescentville section.

In 1962, we were classmates again, this time in the freshman class at Hahnemann (now Drexel) Medical School. I dropped out after one year, but David went on to become a surgeon. In 1967, his surgical residency was interrupted by Vietnam, where he volunteered for a second tour of duty and was assigned to the 45th Surgical Hospital M.U.S.T.  (Medical Unit Self-Sustained and Transportable), similar to the M.A.S.H. units of the Korean War.

The 45th Surgical was located on the Cambodian border, known then as “the most dangerous hospital in the world.” He and his surgical colleagues routinely faced complicated cases – traumatic amputations and thoracic and abdominal gunshot and mortar wounds. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service, among many other medals. 

Rilling saved countless lives with his surgical skills, not only of American G.I.s but Vietnamese people as well. “It did not matter who they were,” he told me many years later. “They were all human beings, and our job was to heal their wounds. That's what we all signed up for.”

David returned to the U.S. unexpectedly in March, 1970, when his father, Dr. Carl A. Rilling, passed away. He finished his tour of duty at the Valley Forge Military Hospital, where one afternoon in a clinic, he was examining a young man who coincidentally happened to have been treated at the 45th Surgical Hospital in Vietnam. Further inspection of the patient’s chart revealed that he was the same young man on whom David had performed a complicated thoracic-abdominal operation just within the previous year. 

The patient had been sent back to the U.S. for further care after spending three post-operative days at the 45th. When David saw the long thoracic-abdominal scar, he couldn’t believe his eyes. “It was great to see him alive and well,” Rilling said. “It was an amazing reunion.” 

But Rilling often said his most memorable and difficult surgical challenge happened in 1977 at Grand View Hospital in Sellersville, Bucks County, where he worked from 1975 to 2014. Jesse Masarjian, 19, was brought into the ER after a tractor ran over him on a farm in Lancaster County, severing his left arm. Along with colleagues Dr. Dennis Moyer and orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Rising, the trio was able to successfully reattach Masarjian's arm. 

According to news reports at the time, this was the first limb reattachment ever done in the Northeastern U.S., and it made national headlines. Masarjian had a smooth recovery and became gainfully employed, and a strong friendship developed between him and Rilling. “It was truly an incredible journey!” Rilling told me a few years ago. “We had a celebration every year after that at the Washington House restaurant (in Sellersville) with Jesse and many of the people involved in his care – Dr. Dennis Moyer, anesthesiologists Dr. Jennifer Lee and Dr. Richard Kriebel, and physical therapist Nancy Rourke. It was so thrilling!”

In 2014 David took a position as Chief of Surgery at Lock Haven Hospital, where he practiced until 2020, when he finally retired. Lock Haven Hospital honored him by nominating him to be a “Hometown Hero” and his banner was hung in the city for two years.

Rilling was also a philanthropist. Both he and his father amassed an astonishing collection of African and Oceanic art and sculpture. In 2008 David and his wife, Karina, whom David met in 1966 during his internship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania where Karina was a student nurse, donated a collection of 420 pieces of this art and sculpture, with an estimated value of more than $200,000, to Central’s new Barnwell Library. The pieces are still displayed in large glass cases throughout the library. This gift was in honor of the 50-year reunion of the Class of 1958, the 209th graduating class.

Rilling was also a serious collector of rare artifacts, fossils and minerals, which he and Karina donated to many museums, colleges and universities throughout the U.S., including the Smithsonian Institution, the Yale University Peabody Museum and the Trout Gallery at Dickinson College.

Rilling and I re-connected at the 50-year Central High reunion in 2008, and since then we got together with him and Karina dozens of times. I like to believe that we were best friends. Every time we were together, we laughed ourselves silly. At least twice, my sides hurt from laughing so hard. I think we added years to our lives with all of those feel-good hormones released into the bloodstream. Our house is filled with memories of David, including many hilarious animated videos he created about our get-togethers. (He was also a brilliant videographer and punster.)

In the latter stages of the pandemic, David contracted “Long Covid,” and his health was never the same after that. On Monday, April 22, he died of pulmonary fibrosis. “It destroyed his lungs so fast,” said Karina last week. “It required two huge oxygen compactors with oxygen streaming day and night … He is done with his suffering.”

Dr. Rilling is survived by Karina, their super-nice children – Jonathan (Laura), Dr. Alexander and Claudia and two grandchildren. He was pre-deceased by his brother, Paul; sister, Barbara E. Raifsnider, and parents, Dr. Carl and Elizabeth.

Donations may be made to the Central High Alumni Association, 1700 W. Olney Ave.; Phila. PA 19141, or woundedwarriorproject.org. 

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com