On Monday, March 30, 1981, just 69 days into the presidency, a mentally disturbed John Hinckley, Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan and three others in a presidential assassination attempt. Reagan suffered a punctured lung, but prompt medical attention saved his life and allowed him to recover quickly.
In his recently released book, Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan, author, Del Quentin Wilber touched on the role the nurses played in the emergency, operating and recovery room at George Washington University Hospital after the incident. It seemed befitting since the late president was apparently truly impressed with them. And, as happens every day in hospitals across the country, it was the nurses who left a lasting impression on their patient.
In Reagan’s case, they may have been busy using their training and specialized skills in a high-profile emergency by inserting IV lines, checking vital signs and monitoring his breathing, but they were also the ones Reagan and so many others like him, turned to for comfort.
In an excerpt from the book, on his way to the operating room, Reagan asked technician Cyndi Hines, “What do you think?” Hines was fairly certain 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, ask her that question all the time. “I think you are doing all right,” she told Reagan 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.”
In her first year of nursing school, Arabella Sinclair-Penwarden, a staff nurse in Devon in the United Kingdom, was put off with any concept that resembled the patronizing of nurses. When introduced to the concept of nurses as patient advocates, she felt the idea did not promote the well-being of the patient, but rather served to divide the healthcare team.
Her aversion to the idea was later dispelled after becoming a patient herself. She stated that she had made her previous argument in a calm and reasonable state, not during moments of pain and fear. She had never envisioned a moment when she would not be able to argue for herself. Nor had she imagined so vividly the role nurses play in comforting and reassuring their patients.
Nearly a decade after nurse 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 arrived 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, highlighting 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.
In the weeks immediately following the shooting, Reagan tracked down many of the nurses who cared for and comforted him through the first difficult night after surgery. In a telephone call to one of them, Reagan is quoted as saying, “You were the one who told me it was okay to be scared and that you wouldn’t leave me.”
As with any profession, some members are dedicated, caring and efficient at what they do, while others are unhappy and give a bad name to the industry. Over the years of hearing numerous personal stories of people who’ve been in the hospital, I believe the consensus is that for every cranky, uncaring Nurse Ratched-type, there are hundreds of thousands of highly skilled and compassionate nurses helping patients in the same way they cared for and comforted former President Reagan.

About the Author:
Gloria Ha’o Schneider is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has a very strong background in senior living. She also has a passion for human interest stories like Hospice Camarillo and Home Health Beverly Hills.

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