AN INTERVIEW WITH BEN AARON, MD - THE TEAM THAT SAVED RONALD REAGAN
DC March 30 1981, 2:27 pm:
On March 30 1981, 2:27 pm, John Hinckley
Jr shot President Ronald Reagan, White House Press Secretary James Brady,
Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and Washington D.C. police officer Thomas
Delahanty using his Röhm RG-14 .22 cal blue steel revolver loaded with six
"Devastator" brand cartridges (each with small aluminum and lead
azide explosive charges designed to explode on contact). Hinckley fired six
shots in 1.7 seconds, first hitting Jamey Brady in the head and then officer
Delahanty in the neck. As Special Agent Jerry Parr pushed President Reagan into
the limousine, a fourth shot hit Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy in the
abdomen. The sixth bullet ricocheted off the armored side of the limousine and
hit the president.
It was initially assumed that The
President was uninjured. Thinking he was uninjured, they initially planned to
take the President to the White House. Until he coughed up blood, President
Reagan assumed the pain in his left chest was due to rib fractures from being
pushed into the limousine. Special Agent Parr thought otherwise and directed
the motorcade to George Washington University Hospital. Upon arrival the
President walked into the Emergency Department unassisted but immediately
collapsed. At the insistence of The Physician to the President, Daniel Ruge,
the ED team was instructed to treat the President as any other trauma victim.
The President was in shock and the Trauma team quickly discovered a bullet
entrance wound in his left axilla. Within 30 minutes, he was stabilized and
transported to the Operating Room where, with the assistance of Joseph M.
Giordano, Chief Thoracic Surgery Benjamin L. Aaron, performed a thoracotomy. Wikipedia
An interview a few weeks later
revealed the anxiety control methods both surgeons utilized when they realized
they were operating on the President:
INTERVIEW WITH BEN AARON, MD:
After Jon White revealed the heroic
aspects of the team saving the Presidents life I had questions of Dr. Aaron:
Dr. Aaron was kind to discuss this
“Bear in mind that all this took
place 35 years ago and that it is coming from an 83 year old brain. Also,
at the time, things were moving at a fast pace during which time there was not
much time for reflection or organization, or to put it another way, much of the
time we were "winging it" in dealing with the complexities imposed by
the unique nature of the event. “
1. Leadership or crisis management experience/techniques applied?
The care in the ER was
flawless as regards urgent processing, mobilization of staff and systematic
application of appropriate care. This was not an accident, but came about
because of aggressive and thorough preparation and training of the ER staff and
residents. In order to take care of the President, James Brady and Tim McCarthy
(SS), the area had to be cleared of patients, the ensuing crowd screened and
managed, and assignments quickly defined. No one consulted any manuals on
procedures on techniques. The key was preparation and training,
insisting, from the get-go, that everyone on my team regard the President first
and foremost as a patient in trouble and to put aside any consideration of who
he was or what might be swirling around beyond our perimeter of care.
This kept us focused on the task at hand and help quell nervousness. You
might call this the principle of putting first things first. I did not
note it at the time, but have been told since that as the team leader, my calm
demeanor, efficiency, decisiveness and apparent lack of nervousness did much to
hold things together as this event moved along. (Jon White, MD noted that this
was indeed the case- Dr. Aaron maintained a calm demeanor with no yelling and
no screaming, which allowed flawless communication and the ability to
resuscitate the President and rapidly transport him to the OR).
2. Consideration of changes or alterations.
One can be
persuaded in such a situation that having additional professional experience at
the table could be helpful and perhaps diffuse responsibility should things go
wrong. I had many offers of help from fellow surgeons, but quickly put
this aside in favor of a three-person team composed of me, my chief Thoracic
resident and a surgical intern (just as it would be if the patient came in off
the street). This seemed to me to be the simplest route to good decision
making during the operation. This might be termed good management versus
too many "cooks" calling the shots.
Because of the
remote possibility that the bullet might have transited the dome of the left
diaphragm, the ER General Surgeons strongly supported an abdominal paracentesis
before opening the chest to rule out injury to the spleen, etc. I had seen no
evidence of this and had reservations about taking the time to do the procedure
(20 minutes or so), but as the President's condition was stable at the time, I
agreed to move ahead on this even though had I found a hole in the diaphragm, I
could easily have dealt with the problem through the chest. This gets down
to using clinical judgment (was it safe to take the additional time) to
forestall a fuss with the General Surgery group.
President, post-op, on the ICU was a management mistake, as his presence along
with all of his SS entourage and visiting staff rendered the ICU
unworkable. We quickly evacuated a wing of the hospital, tailored it to
all the requisites and had the patient moved in 6 hours. My plan for
post-op care was drastically and suddenly altered but I and my team quickly adapted
to the new circumstances and moved on. Being flexible, prepared for
contingencies, and able to move in different directions effectively is
essential to completing the mission.
3. How ready were we?
hears that University medicine is "sterile", impersonal, isolates a
patient from compassionate care and has poor inter-staff communication.
Some of this may be true, but what University Medical centers do provide is
well credentialed and experienced staff and first rate facilities. We
were prepared for this challenge at every level of staff, management and
resource availability and because of this, the event came off without a
significant hitch. It was a team effort in every regard from beginning to
end and a wonderful thing to be a part of.
4. What plans or preparations proved false?
We were not
prepared for the security requirements by the SS. There was a SWAT team
on the roof at all times during the eleven days he was present. When he
needed good quality x-rays (there was a portable machine in his suite), the
halls had to be cleared and explosive sniffing dogs preceded his visit to the x-ray
floor. His food supply was carefully guarded. Bullet proof glass was
installed in his room (despite the fact that he was on the 3rd floor of an
interior court with a window free wall opposite). ALL entrants to the 3rd
floor had to undergo a SS check, each and every time they entered.
Medical folk, especially doctors, are not particularly patient people by
nature, so with great restraint, and resolve, we managed to work it through to
a successful conclusion. The lesson here is to practice situational
awareness and be willing to accept imposed restraints, always keeping the
mission as our first goal.
5. Post event debriefing.
Post mortems are
standard issue for any medical event. We had many discussions after the
fact, but almost all centered about things like conduct with the intrusive
press (residents and especially interns, are full of false info and quite
willing to share it). To relive and relieve tensions. we produced a high
quality 30-minute documentary utilizing all the primary participants (doctors
and nurses, etc) plus actors as the presidential party. This process
brought out into the open the vital parts played by each participant and
highlighted the importance of the synthesis of each performance in attaining a
good outcome. On almost every count, we were satisfied with how our
medical center responded to each and every challenge and this was echoed by the
AMA in their commendation of our efforts.
I hope that this insight into how
our medical center and all it's integrated parts dealt with a most unusual and
unexpected event will help you develop a useful syntax for your book. If
you have additional questions, fire them my way and I will field them as best
as I can.
Sincere regards, Ben Aaron, MD
thanks to Dr. Jon White, Chief Surgery VAMC Washington DC for filling in the
CRISIS MANAGEMENT LEADERSHIP: TRAINING
TO SURVIVE THE CRITICAL MOMENT
A. Lipshy, MD FACS