Nancy Reagan rushed from the White House to George Washington University Hospital yesterday, aware only that there had been an attempt on her husband's life.
It was not until after she arrived, shortly after 2:30 p.m., that she learned he had been wounded, according to her press secretary, Sheila Patton.
And even then President Reagan seemed determined not to let her worry. "Honey, I forgot to duck," he joked to his wife in the emergency room as doctors prepared to operate on him for a bullet wound in the chest.
Mrs. Reagan had returned to the White House minutes earlier from a luncheon in Georgetown when a Secret Service agent told her the attempt had been made on the president's life. Patton said the First Lady left for the hospital at once in a White House limousine.
The First Lady had "tears in her eyes," said Patton, who rode to the hospital in a car behind Mrs. Reagan's. "She was very quiet." The First Lady saw her husband for 15 minutes in the emergency room, and Patton said the couple had a "private conversation."
"Until she saw him she wasn't ready to express any relief," Patton said.
Patton said Nancy Reagan remained "calm" and "composed" throughout the president's surgery, waiting in a doctor's office on the second floor where she received periodic reports of how the surgery was progressing.
She had what Patton described as "private meetings" with Sarah Brady, wife of press secretary James S. Brady, who also was wounded in the assassination attempt, and with the wife of the wounded Secret Service agent. a
After the president entered surgery, Mrs. Reagan visited a chaplain at the hospital, according to her press secretary.
Sarah Brady, looking anxious but composed, waited out her husband's surgery at another location in the hospital. One of the three men with her was a clergyman.
Mrs. Reagan watched televised news reports of the shooting throughout the afternoon and was visited at times by members of the president's White House staff, including chief of staff James A. Baker III and presidential counselor Edwin Meese III. Staying with her were deputy White House chief of staff Michael K. Deaver, her own chief of staff, Peter McCoy, Patton and Patton's deputy, Barbara Cook.
Among Cabinet officials stopping by was Agriculture Secretary John R. Block. Another visitor was .dC. Councilman Arrington Dixon.
At other times the First Lady was in touch with members of the Reagan family. Ronald Preston Reagan, who was in Lincoln, Neb., where he was to perform with the Joffrey II Ballet, arrived in Washington shortly after 7 p.m. to join his parents, Patton said. The three other Reagan children also were flying to Washington.
Mrs. Reagan did not accompany the president to the Washington Hilton Hotel, where he had addressed a meeting of labor officials just before the shooting. Instead, she visited the Phillips Collection to meet with volunteers from the Washington Performing Arts Society, and then attended a luncheon in Georgetown at the home of Michael Ainsley, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Among the 30 or so other guests present at the luncheon were Barbara Bush, wife of the vice president, and several Cabinet wives.
Mrs. Reagan returned to the White House around 2:20 p.m. accompanied by McCoy and Patton, who went to their East Wing offices while Mrs. Reagan, with her Secret Service escort, took the elevator to the family quarters on the second floor. Within minutes, McCoy and Patton, who had heard news of the shootings when they reached their offices, had rejoined the First Lady. By the she, too, had heard of the assassination attempt.
Last night, through her press secretary, she said she was "gratified for the outpouring of sympathy" from around the world and also for the "fine medical treatment" her husband received at the hospital.
She returned to the White House for the night at 8:15 p.m.