Doctor remembers Ronald Reagan
AP Worldwide photos/Ron Edmonds
| President Ronald Reagan (above) waves, then looks up before
being shoved into the presidential limousine by Secret
Service agents after being shot by John Hinckley outside
a Washington hotel, March 30, 1981.
President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan (below) at George
Washington University Medical Center April 3, 1981.
President Reagan died June 5, 2004.
By William A. Knaus
just cannot understand how, after someone has been shot, they
are able to get up and keep fighting,” President Ronald Reagan said to me about battlefield
heroes. “ I just don’t understand it.”
It was Tuesday afternoon, March 31, 1981, and the president
was in the Intensive Care Unit at George Washington University
Hospital, where I was the attending
Approximately 24 hours earlier, a shot fired at Reagan outside
the Washington Hilton by John Hinckley had penetrated
the president’s left chest and stopped
an inch away from his heart and aorta. When Reagan arrived at the emergency room
of GW Hospital at 2:35 p.m., he collapsed. At 3:24 p.m., he was taken into surgery,
and by the time the surgery ended more than three hours later, after an exhaustive
and eventually successful search for the bullet, more than 3 liters of blood — 50
percent of his total blood volume — had been replaced.
The story of the shooting; the controversial, but life-saving
decision to take Reagan immediately to the hospital versus
back to the security
House; the intense minute-by-minute reporting of his medical condition
in the operating
and recovery rooms; and his joking with the surgeons have often been
told. Less well known are the hours immediately after
the president’s surgery, when
he had recovered sufficiently from the anesthesia to realize what had happened
and how close he had come to dying.
The president was brought to the ICU at 6 a.m. Tuesday, after
spending the night in the recovery room. He was being
given nasal oxygen, deep-breathing
and chest physiotherapy to prevent portions of his lung from collapsing.
When I walked into his room, he was propped up in bed and
brushing his teeth. He looked like he was in a movie — one starring himself. He was smiling
and told me he felt “great.” One of the nurses, Carolyn
Frances, was combing his hair and seemed to be closely
examining his scalp.
“Don’t worry,” he joked. “There are no gray roots, at least
not until today!”
I knew from treating other trauma victims that immediately
following a life-threatening situation, the victim can
be euphoric and happy
alive. But working
with the president that day, I saw something else, the quality
that made him one
of our most popular presidents: a man who charmed supporters
and opponents alike.
The French have a phrase for people like Reagan. They say
such people are “comfortable
in their skin.” Sitting up in the hospital bed that day in a room whose
visitors were limited to myself, one or two nurses, his wife Nancy and a Secret
Service agent, the president had no need to engage with those of us who were
his caregivers, but he clearly wanted to make everyone around him as comfortable
in their roles as he was in his.
He told us a story of how he had once fallen off a horse
and hurt his ribs, but the pain was nothing like what
he was then
turned him, vibrated his chest and forced him to cough and
He also recalled meeting a white-haired World World II veteran
who had crawled for half a mile with his wounded comrade
on his back
men had been
seriously injured. Reagan had asked the soldier how he
had done it, and when the man made no reply, he told
him he could
That evening, when the pain and the exercises had taken
their toll, Nancy Reagan brought a minister and his wife — whose names I never learned — into
the room to pray with the president. The lights were low. Mrs. Reagan sat on
the bed close to her husband, and the four of them joined hands in an intimate
circle. The minister began by saying that at no time in history had more people
been praying for the health and recovery of one man.
Standing at a respectful distance, I looked over at the
president — head
bowed, eyes closed — and realized it was true. Regardless of one’s
political views, this man had captivated millions by sharing his love of life
and sense of purpose with the world.
Dr. William A. Knaus is professor and chairman of the
Department of Health Evaluation Sciences.