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The Saving of the President
It was one of the most dramatic stories in the city's history. Here is what really happened—plus what doctors and nurses remember from that fateful day. By John Pekkanen
Comments () | Published March 10, 2011

For four tense hours on March 30, 1981, Washington and the rest of the world held its breath awaiting word on the fate of President Ronald Reagan. If history were to repeat itself, this president would die, just like the previous four American presidents struck by an assassin's bullet.

That did not happen because of the skill of a team of doctors and nurses, and a little bit of luck. Just two months in office when he was shot, Reagan went on to establish himself as one the most important presidents of the 20th century.

The assassination attempt became a watershed event in his life and presidency. Reagan believed he had been spared for a reason, a sentiment he expressed in his diary on his first evening back in the White House. "I know it's going to be a long recovery," he wrote. " Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him every way I can."

This article originally ran in the August 1981 Washingtonian and tells how perilously close to death President Reagan came. To accompany this story, the author, John Pekkanen, went back to the key people involved in the saving of the President to get their 2004 perspective on one of the most dramatic events in the history of Washington.

About 2:30 PM on Monday, March 30, President Ronald Reagan walked out of the VIP entrance of the Washington Hilton Hotel after speaking to a labor audience. As a reporter shouted, "Mr. President, Mr. President," a series of shots, sounding like firecrackers, were fired. Secret Service agent Jerry Parr instinctively pushed the President into his waiting limousine, which sped away. As Parr recalled the moment: "I pushed [President Reagan] up to the right rear [of the car]. I ran my hands over his body looking for some kind of wound. He claimed that I had hurt his ribs in landing on top of him, so I told the driver to head to the White House, the safest place. Shortly after that, I would say in a space of 10 or 15 seconds, he started coughing up a little blood. It was bright red, and I knew from my training that this was oxygenated blood--this is blood coming out of the lung. This occurred just as the limousine was in the tunnel [on Connecticut Avenue] beneath Dupont Circle. As soon as I saw the blood, indicating a wound in the lung, I told the driver to head for George Washington. . . ."

They call it "The White Phone," and it sat, all but forgotten, in the emergency room of George Washington University Hospital. It was a Princess phone, hidden away on the corner of a desk at the nurses' station, with a direct link to a communications signal board at the White House.

On that Monday afternoon it rang. Wendy Koenig, an emergency-room nurse, answered. The voice she heard was brusque: "The presidential motorcade is en route to your facility."

That was all the voice said.

Her first thought was that someone had become ill, but not the President--they would have mentioned the President. She moved automatically to the trauma bay at the far end of the emergency room to set up intravenous lines.

Moments later the white phone rang again. Herman Goodyear, the emergency-room secretary, answered. A man's voice said, "We have three gunshot wounds coming in."

The news sped through the emergency room. Something big; multiple trauma. ER personnel moved quickly to make room. A woman who had suffered a cardiac arrest on the street minutes earlier was in the trauma bay with the resuscitation team working on her. She had to be moved.

Kathy Paul, a 28-year-old ER nurse, heard part of a report coming over the radio of the police officer who had accompanied the stricken woman. There had been a shooting at the Hilton. A police officer had been hit.

But not a word about the President.

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Posted at 03:18 PM/ET, 03/10/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles