The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dennis O’Leary, doctor who updated world after Reagan shooting, dies at 85

Dennis O'Leary, a spokesman for George Washington University Hospital, shows where the incision was made to remove the bullet from President Ronald Reagan after an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981. (Ira Schwarz/AP)
5 min

Dennis O’Leary, a Washington hospital administrator who was thrust into the world spotlight in 1981 as the spokesman for medical teams treating President Ronald Reagan after he was shot by would-be assassin John W. Hinckley Jr., died Jan. 29 at a hospice center in Kansas City, Mo.. He was 85.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Margaret, said.

In the chaotic hours after Hinckley opened fire on March 30, 1981, at the Washington Hilton, journalists faced a fog of rumors and conflicting details on the condition of Reagan and the others wounded, including press secretary James S. Brady. The White House scrambled to arrange a single medical voice for updates at George Washington University Hospital, where the president and Brady were rushed.

The hospital’s chief executive was out of town. Next on the list was Dr. O’Leary, the dean for clinical affairs, who was an experienced physician but had no previous dealings in public affairs or with the media.

As the presidential motorcade was roaring toward the hospital, someone mentioned to Dr. O’Leary that “the president” was on the way.

“The president of what?” he said, unaware of the shooting.

About 7:30 p.m. — five hours after Reagan was severely wounded by a .22-caliber bullet lodged within an inch of his heart — Dr. O’Leary walked into the GW medical school’s Ross Hall Lecture Room 101 for his first briefing to journalists.

“Unreal,” he told The Washington Post in describing the standing-room-only media pack.

Over nearly two weeks, Dr. O’Leary was the public face of the world’s biggest news event. He settled into the role with calm and methodical explanations of Reagan’s surgery and recovery. His baritone-rich voice was a staple on news broadcasts.

Images of Dr. O’Leary raising his left arm to show where the incision was made to remove the bullet from Reagan were seen around the world and became part of the historical record of the assassination attempt.

But there were possible attempts to cloud details, too. Dr. O’Leary repeatedly told journalists that Reagan was never in “serious danger of dying” and did not fully disclose the touch-and-go nature of the surgery.

The doctor who operated on the president, Benjamin Aaron, gave a more dire assessment. He told The Post that the bullet was “more than an inch from [Reagan’s] heart and an inch from his aorta.” (Dr. O’Leary described the bullet as “several inches” from the heart.)

Aaron said he almost gave up trying to locate the bullet, but he did not want to risk the bullet causing more internal bleeding later. Reagan “would have been in big trouble” if he did not get rapid trauma care and was on the brink of a potentially catastrophic drop in blood pressure, Aaron said.

From Reagan Library: Statement after leaving the hospital

Brady, who was shot in the head, was left permanently disabled and became a galvanizing force for gun-control initiatives until his death in 2014. Two others who were wounded, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty, recovered.

In June, Hinckley was released from oversight by the legal and mental health systems.

Dr. O’Leary acknowledged that he sometimes had “a little bit less than complete information” in his media briefings. “I tried to be as upbeat as possible without damaging my credibility,” he said.

He recalled that the hospital announced that Reagan would be transferred from intensive care to the “VIP suite.” Trouble was, there was no such thing at George Washington. Crews quickly painted walls, installed Persian-style carpets and hung paintings.

“It looked for all the world like it had been there for quite some time,” Dr. O’Leary recalled. The suite was dismantled once Reagan was discharged.

‘Definitely showtime’

Dennis Sophian O’Leary was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Jan. 28, 1938, and raised in nearby Fairway, Kan., where his father was based as a journalist and writer for outlets including the Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated.

Dr. O’Leary graduated from Harvard University in 1960 and received his medical degree from Cornell University in 1964. He trained in internal medicine and hematology at the University of Minnesota hospital system and Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y.

In 1969, he joined the hematology laboratory at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, serving until 1972 as head of the blood coagulation unit and attaining the rank of Army major.

Dr. O’Leary then joined the George Washington medical system. He left in 1985 to become president of the Chicago-based Joint Commission, the accrediting organization for U.S. health-care facilities.

During more than two decades at the commission, Dr. O’Leary and a Harvard School of Public Health professor, Lucian Leape, led efforts to bring greater monitoring of health-care quality in hospitals, including documenting accidents and errors such as operating on a healthy part of the body.

“If you look at the medical literature, there are no cases of wrong-site surgery reported before 1995,” Dr. O’Leary said. “None. That’s amazing!”

Dr. O’Leary’s marriage to Diane Guida ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 42 years, Margaret Wiedman O’Leary, survivors include their two children; three children from his first marriage; and nine grandchildren.

For decades after the Reagan shooting, Dr. O’Leary was asked to recount that first moment facing the press corps. He often noted that it was in the same lecture hall where he had “put medical students to sleep” with his talks.

“It was blinding,” he told Forbes magazine in 2014. “They put me at the podium from which microphones of every imaginable size and shape extended in every direction. It was definitely showtime.”