During my training, I spent a couple of months at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Parkland has always been a leading institution in trauma care and I was there to learn from the best. It was, of course, the hospital that cared for President Kennedy when he was assassinated fifty years ago today. I still clearly recall that day decades earlier, and the pervasive sadness that followed for weeks thereafter. It was a sudden and tragic wrenching of the world for all of us, even those too young like myself to fully comprehend what had happened or why. Actually, the most harrowing part of the whole ordeal is that none of the grown-ups seemed to know why, either. I recall still the sense of confusion and of becoming unmoored from our previously happy lives. Whenever I confront this event, I still feel a deep sense of loss and unease. We still don’t know why.
Parkland does not shy away from its history in this event. I worked for two months in the large Emergency Department, lovingly referred to as “The Pit.” It was still run by the surgical residents. When I was there, I worked in the same resuscitation rooms where the victims that day were treated. A plaque recognizes the event. During my rotation, I had the privilege of listening to one of the participants relate the events of the tragic day. His story, as I recall it, follows.
The work in the Pit was steady, as was usual for a Friday. We were all aware, of course, that the President was in town, but nobody gave the fact a moment’s thought. We were just doing our usual work when a clerk came over to tell me that she had just gotten a call saying that the President was being brought over by ambulance. It was 1963–there was no radio communication between the hospital and the ambulance services. She didn’t know who had called or if it might be a prank of some kind. I called over my Chief Resident to tell him about the phone call. “What do you want to do?” I asked him. “Should I call the attending?”
“We better wait and see,” he said. “Probably somebody’s idea of a joke.”
So we waited. When we didn’t hear anything more, I went back to taking care of the minor injuries that was the usual fare in downtown Dallas. Suddenly, the PA announced that a trauma was at the dock. I looked at my chief, who had suddenly become very pale. We positioned ourselves to receive the patient and the big double doors burst open. A patient on a stretcher was pushed in rapidly by an army of ambulance technicians. My chief stopped them to assess the patient, a middle aged white male with an obvious severe gunshot wound. With relief, he announced, “It’s not Kennedy. Take him to Trauma Bay One.” The nurses wheeled the man into the resuscitation bay and we began our assessment. None of us recognized the victim to be Governor Connolly. As we were working, somebody announced through the doorway that a second victim was arriving.
“You take it,” the Chief said to me. I ran out just as another victim was wheeled into Trauma Bay Two. I bent over the man to see President Kennedy, the back of his head nearly shot off from a severe gunshot wound. I started the resuscitation protocol.
Within minutes, attending surgeons of every specialty flooded into the emergency department. We were quickly pushed aside. Amidst a flurry of activity, Kennedy and Connolly disappeared up the elevators to the operating rooms. The chief and I sat at the desk in the Pit. The ER was quiet and empty of patients, as they had all been removed during the crisis. With no patients to care for, we all just sat, many of the staff crying. I just stared at the trail of blood that was still on the floor leading out to the elevators. “Somebody should clean that up,” I thought.