MY BRUSH WITH HISTORY

After I finished my doctorate in Biology at Georgetown University, I moved "across town" to the George Washington University School of Medicine's Department of Pathology, as a post-doctoral Research Associate. Although my time there was brief, I did have a few exciting days. Most especially the week of March 30, 1981.

That was the day that President Ronald Reagan was shot in a bungled assassination attempt by John Hinckley. The shooting occurred near a hotel on Wisconsin Avenue, perhaps a mile and a half from GWU Medical Center. The President was rushed to the GWU Emergency Room, and thereby began what I can only describe as a week of pandemonium and near panic, especially in the first few days.

Within minutes of the arrival of the ambulance, reporters and TV crews were everywhere in the hospital and med school corridors, interviewing anyone who'd sit still long enough and didn't mind having a microphone stuck in his face. Honest to gosh, they even interviewed the housekeeping staff, who were later described on the Nightly News as "hospital sources!"

Like many other employees, I attended the first press conference, held in the medical school auditorium less than an hour after the event, and heard Lyn Nofziger's statement that James Brady had been killed, which later turned out not to be the case, but in those first confusing minutes nobody was sure what was really happening. I have a vivid memory of Chris Wallace, at that time a reporter for one of the Washington TV stations, leaping like a hurdler over the rows of seats in the auditorium to get to the back wall to do his "stand-up" after Nofziger's announcement. No work got done that day or for a few days afterwards, until the hospital authority and the Secret Service got things under control.

The top two floors of the hospital were cleared of other patients and the President put in a suite on the top floor when he came out of surgery. The floor below was manned exclusively by Secret Service personnel, and all entrances to the hospital were closed off except for one door on the corner of 37th and Eye Streets. No one was admitted into the building without a hastily-issued employee badge, given out on the second day. The press corps set up a 24-hour-a-day watch on the official entrance, a small side door; and they filmed everyone coming in or out.

By the end of the third or fourth day, things had settled into a routine and the Secret Service wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to who went in so long as they had the badge and looked like they belonged there. One enterprising reporter managed to get a white lab coat such as we all wore, and stole, bought, or faked a badge, and calmly walked into the hospital unchallenged, trying to find a way to get up to the top floor and interview The President, I suppose: but he never made it.

The entrance door opened into a vestibule that had one door into a stairwell, and a second door that led into a corridor. The first door to the right on that corridor was the way into the autopsy room. Not knowing his way around the building but unwilling to ask questions and reveal himself, the reporter walked through the door into the corridor, and then into the autopsy room...where there was an autopsy in progress. Well in progress, actually, with the deceased having been substantially dismantled and more or less spread around in small piles of organs while his half-flayed corpse lay open on the table. This was too much for the reporter, who promptly left his lunch on the floor and hastily beat a retreat to the street.

Eventually, the President recovered from his wound for one simple reason: only one side of his chest was compromised. In medical terms he had a "traumatic unilateral pneumothorax" from a small-caliber bullet which lacked the energy to penetrate deeply enough to perforate the chest wall on the other side. Luckily for the President, Hinckley was a pretty incompetent assassin, as most assassins are. He used a Rohm RG-14 revolver in .22 caliber like the one at left, allegedly loaded with "Devastator" bullets. These were designed to break up on impact—some reports say they were "explosive" and had a detonating charge inside, which I find dubious—in accordance with the fallacious theory of "energy transfer" as a mechanism of killing.

It's worth remembering that Hinckley shot four people that day: thanks partly to skilled medical intervention, but mainly to the shooter's utter ignorance of the principles of terminal ballistics, none of them died (though Brady, hit in the head, came close; and after losing half his cerebral cortex, became a Democrat). Had Hinckley chosen a more powerful weapon, it's almost certain he'd have succeeded in his mission. President Reagan would most likely have died during the few minutes it took him to get to the hospital had both lungs collapsed.