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How We Saved Reagan's Life

By Giordano, Joseph | Newsweek, March 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

How We Saved Reagan's Life


Giordano, Joseph, Newsweek


Thirty years ago, the president arrived in my ER bloodied and wounded. Trauma care would never be the same.

"Dr. Giordano, stat to the ER, "blared the speakers. As head of the trauma teams at George Washington University Medical Center, I was used to being called to the emergency room--by phone, that is. I couldn't remember the last time I had been paged over the intercom. Whatever was happening, I thought, must be big.

It was. Our patient was the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. He had just been shot, a mile away outside the Washington Hilton hotel, by John Hinckley Jr. At first, no one realized a bullet had penetrated the president's side. But Secret Service agent Jerry Parr had noticed blood on the president's lips. Fearing Reagan had been injured when thrown into the limo amid the gunfire, Parr rushed him to our ER. That's where I found him, surrounded by doctors, nurses, and agents. I asked the president how he was feeling. "I'm having trouble breathing," he said, his voice muffled by an oxygen mask.

Our team had already located the gunshot wound below the left armpit, and was getting ready to insert a tube that would drain away the blood collecting in the 70-year-old president's chest. As senior doctor, I took over--slicing into the president's skin with a No. 10 scalpel, forcing in the tube, and watching blood flow into a plastic container. From there Reagan went on to emergency surgery, a painful recovery--and, ultimately, back to the Oval Office for a historic presidency.

It's been 30 years since that awful day. We now take for granted this kind of swift, lifesaving response. But it wasn't always that way. When President Reagan came through the doors at GW, I had spent four years setting up the trauma system there. Back then, emergency care was in the midst of a revolution. Surgeons returning from Vietnam saw the ineffectiveness of trauma care compared with battlefield methods. The epicenter for new approaches was the Baltimore Shock Trauma Unit, where I had spent a month when getting ready to revamp the system at GW.

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