The President was shot and he was coming to our hospital. Watching the numbing television bulletin in a patient’s room at the George Washington University Hospital, I had no idea that the near tragedy that transfixed the nation would transform me. It was March 30, 1981, and the medical recovery of Ronald Reagan, the leader of the free world, was about to be entrusted to the care of my colleagues and me.
I was an assistant head nurse on a medical/surgical floor. Though the President was initially admitted to the emergency room and intensive care unit, the Secret Service decided he would spend the remainder of his recovery on my floor because we had the only room with bulletproof windows. In addition, the flat roof outside was perfect for the SWAT team.
Directives flew. We were ordered to transfer all patients on the east wing to other areas of the hospital. Rooms were painted, pictures hung, furniture rearranged, phone lines brought in. The wing was rapidly and astonishingly transformed into a Presidential Suite with a nurses’ station, receiving room, dining room, fully equipped office, and three bedrooms—one each for the President, First Lady Nancy Reagan, and the military aide with “the football”—the black briefcase containing nuclear codes. We were all set.
When my head nurse informed me that I would be the President’s nurse that very evening, all the confidence drained from my body. Having been at the hospital for almost ten hours, I worried about my appearance and that I would fail in my duties as a nurse, even though I had never done so before.
My fears were interrupted by the banging of the double doors as two ICU nurses wheeled in the stretcher, on it, a handsome, familiar face with kind, exhausted eyes and a shock of dark hair. He wore an oxygen mask, but his features jumped out at me like a caricature.
The First Lady was tiny and elegant and apprehensive and worried and smiling in an unsure way. She harbored the stretcher so closely, that it seemed she was offering her husband some sort of protection by almost cradling him with her body. The President was further buffered by a corps of Secret Service agents, hovering on all sides. The procession of nurses, guards, wife, and patient moved in unison, until the stretcher came to rest in the President’s room.
I gathered my thoughts while pressing the oxygen flow meter into the wall. Smiling at the First Lady, I touched her arm, introduced myself, and made a mental checklist of what needed to be done: oxygen, chest tubes, urinary catheter, intravenous supplies, suction.
Within a half hour the President was wheezing. His pearly white room reeked of fresh paint: not exactly the perfect environment for a patient with a collapsed lung. We were forced to move President Reagan to the one place that had not been painted—the dining room--where he slept without the benefit of bulletproof windows.
The next night, President Reagan was disoriented with a high fever. We mobilized into action, monitoring vital signs, chest tube drainage, and blood tests, administering chest physical therapy and intravenous antibiotics.
After several days, our patient felt better. He took short walks with assistance and told stories of acting in the movies. As the President’s health improved, we began to enjoy our assignment.
The hospital food got a lot better for all of us, although the President routinely begged for macaroni and cheese. Empty Jelly Belly bags were everywhere. And signs of Nancy Reagan’s love and Americans’ good wishes, in the form of cards, letters, and posters, abounded.
The President’s recovery awakened an aspiration in me. I wondered what I could take for a souvenir that would somehow help me hang onto this experience. When the King of Morocco sent an exotic, silk box full of fine chocolates, Nancy Reagan told a Secret Service agent to give the box to one of the nurses. I sprinted to make it mine.
I took all proffered Reagan pins, pens, and pads, as well as all of the discarded Jelly Belly bags I could stuff into my pockets and even absconded with an empty tin of Poppycock, a favorite of the President.
Another thing I took with me was a changed attitude toward gun violence. Initially, I was forced to confront the possibility that President Reagan might die and I felt grief. His prostrate body, colorless face, perspiration trickling into his dark hair and the sound of his labored breathing compelled me to ask, “Why?”
Questioning turned to anger, as I thought of Dr. Michael Halberstam, a cardiologist, shot and killed a few months earlier. I suddenly and furiously understood the shootings were not isolated, but part of the daily pattern of our society.
Now, thirty years after the assassination attempt, I remain outraged because Congress has done so little to reduce senseless shootings. Today, shameful firearm death rates persist—we are still losing about 30,000 people annually to gun violence.
On January 8, 2011, when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down with 18 others in a matter of 15 seconds, I felt the sickening pain of the Reagan shooting all over again. And I thought, What can we do to stop this?
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy has proposed a bill to ban high capacity magazines (H.R. 308/S.32). A high capacity magazine allowed the Tucson shooter to fire about 30 shots before stopping to reload. Only then were bystanders able to tackle and stop him. McCarthy’s bill would restrict magazines to a capacity of ten shots. If the Tucson shooter had had to stop after firing ten shots, lives would have been saved.
We need our legislators to show us they care. We need them to recognize that their own people—public servants who have worked hard to give so much to our country—are on the front lines. We need them to do something. That something is to ban high capacity magazines which have no place in a civil society.
Only when Congress enacts this law will it be clear that we have truly learned a lesson from the shooting of the President.
(Note: Photo is of Robyn Ringler and Jerry Parr, the Secret Service agent who pushed President Reagan into the car and saved his life. It is taken in the hospital corridor at GW just outside the president's room.)