"Am I going to die? " Dr. Drew Scheele had no idea. There was blood on the inside of the patient's oxygen mask and it was clear he was badly hurt.
“Am I going to die?”
Dr. Drew Scheele had no idea. There was blood on the inside of the patient’s oxygen mask and it was clear he was badly hurt.
“You’re going to be fine,” Scheele told him. It’s what Scheele has told every patient. Even this one. Even President Ronald Reagan.
He had been brought into George Washington University Hospital on March 30, 1981, after a man named John W. Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at him outside the Washington Hilton, where Reagan had just given a speech.
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In aiming for Reagan, Hinckley shot Press Secretary James Brady in the head; Washington, D.C., police Officer Thomas Delahanty in the back, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy in the chest and Reagan in the side, below his left arm.
Scheele, 64, is now an anesthesiologist who lives in Bellingham.
But 30 years ago this month, he was a first-year resident doing an anesthesia rotation when he heard the trauma call and walked down to the hospital emergency room.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just do something fun,’ ” he said the other day. “We did trauma cases as an everyday course. We didn’t know it was the president.”
Over the next several hours, Scheele would go from being a “fly on the wall” to one of those credited with saving the president’s life in a new book, “Rawhide Down” by Washington Post reporter Del Wilber.
The book chronicles the day’s events, from the perspectives of doctors, Secret Service agents, White House officials and even Hinckley, who Wilber depicted through 600 pages of psychiatric evaluations and court records.
“The country would be a different place if Reagan (had) died three months into his first term,” Wilber said the other day. The actions of hotel, hospital and White House staffers made up “a collision of forces that helped Reagan survive.”
When Scheele walked into the emergency room, the first thing he noticed was the expensive suit being cut off the man on the gurney and falling to the floor.
Scheele went to the head of the bed and saw that the patient was not only the president, but short of breath, and scared.
Yet, he still managed that famous quip:
“I hope we’re all Republicans here.” He told doctors to do whatever they did normally.
“He never pulled rank, nothing,” Scheele said.
Scheele didn’t intend on special treatment, anyway. An infantry officer and helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he had seen and experienced worse than this. In 1972, he was shot in the chest, arm and leg, flown home and spent a year recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“This was minor, compared to going into combat,” Scheele said of treating Reagan. “You want to be scared, think of someone trying to kill you all day long for a year.”
The book depicts how Scheele was the first to identify a small, half-inch slit 5 inches below Reagan’s left armpit as a gunshot wound. As word spread through the hospital that the president was in the ER, the room filled with doctors eager to be a part of the action.
As Reagan’s condition stabilized, doctors were asked: “Do you need to be here?”
Scheele’s supervisor said he needed him, which is how the young resident walked beside Reagan’s gurney and into the operating room.
Over the 30 years that have passed since the assassination attempt, Scheele hasn’t thought that much about the events of that day. “I never did dwell on it,” he said. He thinks he got a letter of thanks, “but nothing special.” At the end of that historic night, Scheele finished his rounds, and then was led out a side door to avoid the crowd that had gathered outside the hospital.
At home, his wife asked: “Did you know the president got shot?”
“Yeah, I know,” he told her, and then, like every other night, headed for bed.
Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the way, he’s a Republican.