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March 30, 2011

The surgeons and nurses who saved President Reagan

Daily Briefing

Thirty years after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, surgeons and nurses who treated him at George Washington University (GWU) Hospital recount the "tense hours" following the shooting.

On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots outside of the Washington Hilton, where Reagan had just finished delivering a speech. Jerry Parr, the agent in charge of the president's security detail, pushed Reagan into his car and began the trek back to White House. However, Parr mid-trip diverted the car to GWU's ED after Reagan started to spit up blood and complain about his breathing. Three other men, including Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, a Washington, D.C., police officer and a secret service agent also were wounded in the incident.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the .22-caliber shell—which was fired from a small revolver—penetrated and partially shred Reagan's left lung, causing internal bleeding. Officials believe the bullet ricocheted off the limousine, flattening like a coin and hitting the 70-year-old president. Physicians now say that if the shooter had used a higher-powered rifle or larger bullets, Reagan's injury could have been much more severe.

After the president's arrival, GWU's surgical team followed "detailed and highly choreographed" trauma protocol, which had been developed at the hospital only a few years prior to the shooting. The team pumped fluids and blood into the president to boost his blood pressure and wheeled him into the OR, where he underwent three hours of surgery to stop the hemorrhaging. "[T]here weren't a lot of real trauma centers in the '60s and '70s, but GW decided to ramp up its care, and by 1981 Reagan was benefiting," said Del Quentin Wilber, who authored a book about the shooting. "It was one of the key decisions that saved Reagan that day."

Before and after the operation, several nurses monitored Reagan's condition, inserting IV lines, checking his vital signs and measuring his breathing. One nurse recalled encouraging the president to rest. "In the most polite way I know how…I'm putting this [wet washcloth] over your eyes, and I want you to shut up and go to sleep," nurse Joanne Bell said.

Although he developed a fever, physicians say Reagan made a "remarkable recovery" for a man his age. Following the initial 12 days of treatment, physicians visited the president and the White House one month and one year later for checkups (Cohn, Sun, 3/26; Wilber, Washington Post, 3/28).

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