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30 years later, nurses recall their role in saving Reagan’s life

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Nearly a decade to the day after Denise Sullivan tended to Ronald Reagan during the darkest night of his life, the nurse received a handwritten letter from the former president. “Your hand clasp was one of the most comforting things done for me during my stay,” Reagan wrote, describing his gratitude toward a nurse who hovered by his bedside in the hours after surgeons removed a would-be assassin’s bullet lodged just an inch from his heart.

The letter, which came days after Reagan had been reintroduced to Sullivan at a ceremony naming the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital in the former president’s honor, highlighted the instrumental and often overshadowed role that nurses and technicians played in saving the president’s life after he was shot on March 30, 1981. It was during those tense hours — while inserting IV lines, checking his vital signs and monitoring his breathing — that a small cadre of nurses got an unvarnished glimpse of a president. And, as happens every day in hospitals across the country, it was the nurses who left a lasting impression on their patient.

The nurses’ brush with history began at 2:30 p.m. on March 30, when Reagan arrived at GWU’s emergency room. He had just been hustled away from gunfire outside the Washington Hilton, where three other men — James Brady, his press secretary; Thomas Delahanty, a District police officer; and Tim McCarthy, a Secret Service agent — had been wounded at close range by a young man named John W. Hinckley Jr., who was attempting to assassinate the president. On the race back to the White House in the presidential limousine, it initially seemed that Reagan had not been harmed by any of Hinckley’s six shots. But then the president started spitting up blood and complaining about his breathing. A quick-thinking Secret Service agent, Jerry Parr, diverted the armored Lincoln to the hospital, where Reagan insisted on walking into the ER.

Kathy Paul Stevens was one of the first nurses to see the president as he hobbled through the doors. He looked ashen and very sick, and suddenly collapsed into the arms of nurses and agents. To Stevens and other medical personnel, Reagan looked like he might die. While tending to the president, Stevens’s hands shook, and only one thought went through her head: Please don’t die, please don’t die, please don’t die. Not here. Not today. Please don’t die.

Another nurse, Wendy Koenig, battled back tears as she strapped an inflatable cuff on the president’s arm to ascertain his blood pressure. But she couldn’t hear anything through her stethoscope.

“I can’t get a systolic pressure,” Koenig said in near panic while other nurses and technicians sliced off Reagan’s new blue suit and hooked up IV lines that would provide critical fluids to help prevent the president from slipping into shock. Finally, Koenig got a reading: around 60 — very low for a man whose normal blood pressure was 140.

Surgeons arrived and soon discovered a bullet wound in Reagan’s left chest, about five inches below his armpit. A doctor inserted a tube to drain blood, which poured into a container. As the tube relieved the pressure in Reagan's chest, he began to feel a bit better. At one point, after being told he was going to the operating room, Reagan turned to a technician, Cyndi Hines, who worked alongside the ER nurses. “What do you think?” the president asked her.

Hines, who had inserted a IV line into Reagan’s right arm when he arrived, smiled. She was pretty sure she knew what he was really asking: Am I going to be okay, or am I going to die? Patients, afraid to pester the doctors, asked her that question all the time. “I think you are doing all right,” she replied gently. “They are taking you to the OR. If you were really bad, they would be opening you up right here. I really think you are doing fine.”

The president grinned at her through his oxygen mask and was soon wheeled to the operating room, where he would undergo about three hours of surgery to stop his hemorrhaging — he would ultimately lose more than half of his blood — and to retrieve the mangled bullet from his lung. In the recovery room that night, two other nurses — Denise Sullivan and Cathy Edmondson — took over his care. When he struggled with the breathing tube snaking down his throat, they gently admonished him not to touch it; holding his hand, they told him everything would be okay. Eventually, someone gave Reagan a pen and pencil and a clipboard, and the president began jotting notes.

“I keep on breathing?” he wrote at one point.

Yes, the nurses said.

While clearly uncomfortable and struggling to breathe, the irrepressible entertainer couldn’t stop himself from delivering jokes and one-liners. “All in all I would rather be in Phil,” he wrote, reprising a famous W.C. Fields line. Sullivan and Edmondson chuckled. Okay, Sullivan thought, he’s going to make it.

A bit later, the president jotted a final note to Sullivan, a hazel-eyed and petite 34-year-old, just before the end of her shift. “Does Nancy know about us?” he asked in an innocently flirtatious way. A decade later — in writing the letter to Sullivan and thanking her for comforting him — Reagan would confess that he worried his note from a decade earlier may have offended her.

Over the next few hours, two other nurses would take over the president's care — Joanne Bell and Marisa Mize. While Bell monitored his machines and blood pressure, Mize held Reagan’s hand. At one point, she noticed that he was clutching at his breathing tube. While patting the president’s head and reassuring him it was all right to be scared, she persuaded him to relax and to let the machine breathe for him.

Soon, Reagan began writing notes to Mize. “What does the future hold?” the president wrote at one point. Mize, 26, wasn’t quite sure what he meant, nor did she know how to answer. As she thought about how to respond, Reagan scribbled, “Will I be able to do ranch work, ride, etc.?”

“Give yourself three months,” Mize told him, “and you’ll be able to do those things again.”

Other notes were funny.

By about 3 a.m., just over 12 hours after he had been shot, the breathing tube was removed, and Reagan held court for an hour or so, bantering and cracking jokes with a small crowd of doctors and nurses, and his first words were: “What was that guy’s beef?”

An hour later, Bell grew worried that the president wasn’t getting his rest. Deciding it was time to intervene, the no-nonsense nurse placed a wet washcloth over his eyes. “In the most polite way I know how,” she told Reagan, “I’m putting this cover over your eyes, and I want you to shut up and go to sleep."

A few months after the shooting, Reagan began trying to track down the nurses who had comforted him through the difficult night. One afternoon, Mize received a call from the White House, and before long she was on the phone with the president. “You were the one who told me it was okay to be scared and that you wouldn’t leave me,” Reagan said. “Nancy thanks you. God bless you.”

Years later, Nancy Reagan was touring a different hospital where Mize happened to be working. Mize approached the first lady but barely get out an introduction before she was enveloped in a tight hug. “I know who you are, Marisa Mize,” Nancy Reagan said.

This article is adapted from Wilber’s new book, “Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan” (Henry Holt).

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