A Close and Unusual Vantage Point: The Day President Kennedy was Assassinated
By Kern Wildenthal
I was in Parkland Hospital on the day President Kennedy and Governor Connally were shot. I was a senior medical student and 22 years old at the time. Although I was not directly involved with the medical care of any of the individuals involved, I had a close and unusual vantage point to observe some of the events that transpired that day.
I was on call in the Obstetrics emergency room when it was announced that the president had been shot and was being brought to Parkland. A “lock-down” was imposed. I stayed for several minutes in the Obstetrics ER, which, uncharacteristically, had no patients at the time. It was located across the wall from the surgery ER where the president and Gov. Connally were being treated. Unable to leave through the blocked doors, receive any information, or to do anything useful, I took the ER elevator up to the operating room floor, which was abandoned and eerily quiet, to try to find a radio or TV.
Shortly after I arrived on the OR floor, another elevator door opened, and out came Gov. Connally on a gurney with the surgical team that was attending him, as well as Mrs. Connally. They took the governor into the operating room, and I stayed with Mrs. Connally, who was a family friend, and helped her place some calls to family members and friends. I was with her when she was informed officially that the president was dead and that President Johnson had left for the airport. I stayed with her and some of the governor’s staff until the doctors came out from surgery and informed her that her husband was going to be all right.
Later that day I joined my parents, who had been waiting in the Trade Mart at the planned luncheon where the president was to speak. I learned from them about how events had unfolded there, and how a man who much later became one of my most valued mentors, Mr. Erik Jonsson, had informed the stunned audience that the president was dead. They, like everyone in the Trade Mart and at the hospital, were confused and incredibly saddened by this horrible, historic event that had transpired so close to them.
Needless to say, the events at the hospital were the principal topic of conversation for weeks afterward. I heard dozens of reports from residents and faculty who had been directly involved, about what had happened from their perspectives. I was not on call on the day when Lee Harvey Oswald was brought in after being shot, so I only heard about those events from others. Learning how my friends, colleagues and teachers had performed their duties with remarkable skill, poise, and compassion under such extreme circumstances, including saving the life of Gov. Connally, was truly inspiring.
Governor Connally stayed in Parkland for a fairly extended period. I was on the OB service at the time, so I was not involved with his care, although I did visit informally with him and Mrs. Connally on several occasions before he was discharged. Six months later, he gave the commencement address to my class of graduating medical students. He gave a heartfelt and stirring talk about how his life had been saved by the excellent care he had received at Parkland by UT Southwestern faculty physicians, residents, and nurses. Unlike most graduation speeches, this was one that would be remembered by my classmates and me for the rest of our lives.
My other unexpected, minor but unique, involvement in the events of those days occurred a few weeks later when I was in the OB emergency room once again. It was again uncharacteristically quiet, with no patients in the room. Without any warning, someone came in and gave tense instructions not to leave or let anyone else in. Shortly thereafter, a car drove up rapidly and screeched to a halt. I held the door while police quickly escorted someone through the OR and up the elevator. I was surprised to recognize that it was Marina Oswald, the wife of Lee Harvey Oswald, who, as we soon realized, was there to see the professor of OB for her six-week postpartum check-up. She had delivered her second daughter in Parkland a short time before the assassination of President Kennedy. Half an hour later, I again held the door while she was rushed back out to the waiting car.
Being so close to such historic events, and feeling the pride of being associated with medical professionals who had risen to the occasion under extreme conditions, individually and as a team, confirmed my view that medicine is an exceptional calling, and that it would be a privilege to be part of the medical profession for the rest of my life.